BWW Review: CAROUSEL at Arena Stage - It's Magical

It was back in January 1944 that composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were told their next project should be based on a 1909 Hungarian play, LILIOM by Ferenc Molnar. They decided to move the plot from Budapest to the coast of Maine in 1873.

Arena Stage Artistic Director first Rodgers and Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC in 2002 and then directed the incredibly successful OKLAHOMA in 2010 that was reprised a year later.

While SOUTH PACIFIC dealt with racism and OKLAHOMA with the clash between two cultures (cowboys and farmers), CAROUSEL is so much darker. It opened on Broadway in 1945 in a theater right across the street from OKLAHOMA. It's been said that CAROUSEL is about sex and violence. It also deals with class-warfare. The story focuses on a mill worker, Julie (played by the wonderful Broadway veteran Betsy Morgan) who falls in love at first sight with the barker of the carousel, Billy Bigelow (the spectacular Nicholas Rodriquez who was riveting as "Curley" in OKLAHOMA). Their attraction is spell-binding and understandable. Julie's life is stagnant as a mill worker and living under a curfew that requires her to be back in her miserable life in a dormitory before dark. She sees Bigelow as an escape from her dead-end job and dead-end life.

In the book "The Hammersteins", author Oscar Andrew Hammerstein stated it was part of a plan to write songs that could be called "delayed-gratification love songs". The lyricist did not want the two leads to fall in love in the first act. "It would diminish the conflict and undermine the dramatic tension of the second act. His solution became a Hammerstein convention: the not-yet-in-love song. For SHOW BOAT he wrote "Make Believe". For OKLAHOMA he wrote "People Will Say We're in Love". And for CAROUSEL he wrote "If I Loved You"." And what a love duet this is.

The composers do not shy away from heavy topics like domestic violence. Bigelow is known for his violence against Julie and in Act II Julie readily admits it but sings about it with "What's the Use of Wond'rin".

There are so many highlights of the evening, but Act I ends with "Soliloquy". Bigelow finds out Julie is pregnant and fantasizes about first having a son and then realizes he may have a daughter. The song is over seven minutes and Rodriquez is mesmerizing. How ironic that seeing this show in Washington, DC the week of the presidential election that Bigelow states his son could even be "President of the United States - That'd be all right too." He then adds spoken "His mother'd like that. But he wouldn't be President unless he wanted to be!"

It is this realization that causes Bigelow to realize that being a father would put him in a financial bind and what follows is an ill-conceived attempt at robbery which ends with him committing suicide. (In the film this was changed to him being shot by a policeman.)

In Act II, Bigelow in his "after-life" gets a chance to meet his 15 year-old daughter. It is incredibly moving.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Kurt Boehm (Enoch Snow) and Kate Rockwell (Carrie Pipperidge) work wonderfully together as the "other" young couple who fall in love.

Kyle Schliefer plays the Irish hooligan who inspires Bigelow to attempt the failed robbery.

Ann Arvia (Nettie Fowler) nails the anthem-like "You'll Never Walk Along" (also the theme song for the English football team in Liverpool).

Other stand-outs are Stephawn Stephens as the Captain, Rayanne Gonzales as Mrs. Bascombe, Thomas Adrian Simpson as David Bascombe and E. Faye Butler, who sadly does not get a chance to sing but plays Bigelow's boss Mrs. Mullin with panache. Look for Nicole Wildy who plays the "Heavenly Friend" as a star of the future.

The show features an incredible ensemble who fly all over the stage dancing gracefully at times and powerfully at times under the superb work of choreographer Parker Esse. They especially shine in "Prologue", "June is Bustin' Out All Over", and my favorite "Blow High, Blow High" sung by the fisherman about their work. And what voices they have.

Skye Mattox is thrilling in her Act II ballet.

Special mention must be paid to Music Director Paul Sportelli (he has been Music Director at Canada's acclaimed Shaw Festival since 1998) who has written an entire new arrangement for his 12 piece orchestra only after permission from Mary Rodgers and Ted Chapin, President of the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate. (Thank you to Geoffrey Himes and his wonderful article in the Washington Post, October 27.)

The orchestra sits atop the stage in a gazebo designed by Set Designer Todd Rosenthal. Keith Parham did the spectacular lighting, Ilona Somogyi did the appropriate Costumes, and the Sound Design was done by Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli.

In the program, Director Smith talked about the use of mime in the entire show "to wake up our imaginations". Credit David Leong as being both the mime and fight expert.

Rodgers considered CAROUSEL to be Hammerstein's best and most important work.

You can see the talented Nicholas Rodriguez up close and personal in his cabaret performance at the Signature Theatre from January 31 to February 4 where he will blend Broadway with jazz, folk, and blues. Tickets are $35.

For a nice book on the Hammersteins I suggest "The Hammersteins, A Musical Theatre Family" by Oscar Andrew Hammerstein.

Following the show before Director Smith introduced the cast, she mentioned how ironic it was that during the week of the presidential elections she presented a show with the meaningful and appropriate song that features the lyric "Don't be afraid of the dark."

There will post-show conversations December 14 and 21 following the noon performance;, November 22 following the 7:30 p.m. performance, and December 1 following the 8 p.m. performance.

CAROUSEL runs until Christmas eve, Dec. 24. For tickets, call 202-488-3300 or visit


I have always looked forward to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade especially the first hour when they present live presentations of Broadway shows. This year it will feature HOLIDAY INN, CATS, CIQUE DU SOLEIL PARAMOUR, WAITRESS and a preview performance of HAIRSPRAY LIVE! which premieres Dec. 7 on NBC. The CD will be released Dec. 9 and the DVD will be released Dec. 20.

The Thanksgiving Day Parade will feature three Broadway musicals during the CBS three hour coverage: THE COLOR PURPLE, ON YOUR FEET!, and SCHOOL OF ROCK and a performance by Sting.

Where are the Broadway shows of NATASHA AND PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 (with Josh Groban) and DEAR EVAN HANSEN?

For the holidays:

A CHRISTMAS CAROL: A GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS, performed and adapted by Paul Morella running Nov. 25 to December 24, 2016 at the Olney Theatre Center.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL returns to Ford's Theatre with Craig Wallace in the lead through Dec. 31.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Toby's Dinner now through January 8, 2016.

If you will be in NYC on Nov. 21, you can see a preview of the new musical DEAR EVEN HANSEN at 5:30 p.m. at the Vornado Courtyard in Bloomingdale's, 731 Lexington Avenue (between 58th and 59th.
Performing live will be Ben Platt, Laura Dreyfuss, Rachel Bay Jones, and Jennifer Laura Thompson. Following the performance will be the unveiling of their holiday window displays. You can pre-order the CD December 2.

The composers of DEAR EVAN HANSEN also wrote the musical A CHRISTMAS STORY which opens at the Hippodrome Theatre and runs Dec. 6 to Dec. 11.

You can also catch their music in the upcoming film LA LA LAND which opens in December.

Also, see a nice article by the Washington Post's Jane Horwitz on family shows in the Nov. 11 edition including THE SECRET GARDEN at the Shakespeare Theatre Company through Dec. 31.

Photo Credit: Maria Baranova

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From This Author Charles Shubow