BWW Review: Reagle's CAROUSEL: A Sublime Ride

Carousel

Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár, as adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer; Original Dances by Agnes De Mille; Directed and Choreographed by Rachel Bertone; Music Direction, Dan Rodriguez; Scenic Design, Richard Schreiber; Costumes, Costume World Theatrical; Lighting Design, David Wilson; Sound Design, Dylan Howes; Conductor, Jeffrey Leonard; Assistant Director/Assistant Choreographer, Dustienne Miller; Production Manager, Lori E. Baruch; Production Stage Manager, Nicky Carbone; Producing Artistic Director, Robert J. Eagle

CAST (in order of appearance): Jessica Kundla, Jennifer Ellis, Karen Fanale, Ciarán Sheehan, Zaven Ovian, Jared Scott Miller, Stephen Rourke, Leigh Barrett, Dan Prior, Todd Yard, Doug Gerber, Rick Sherburne, Kyra Christopher, Zachary Eisenberg, Josh Sussman, Phoebe Anthony, Maggie Hamel, Cameron Levesque, Anabel Moda, Asher Navisky, Madi Shaer, Charlotte Varga, Sophia Wulsin, Paul Marchesiani; ENSEMBLE: Bernie Baldassaro, Julia Bandini, Katie Scarlett Brunson, Catherine Lee Christie, Joy Clark, Emily Cochrane, Nicholas Davis, Steven Del Col, Andy Garcia, Bransen Gates, Audra Hebard, Shanna Heverly, Jeffrey B. Hover, Jr., Kyle Irvine, Andrea Lyons, Caitlin Oenbrink, Lauren Paley, Michael Anthony Russo, Chris Scott, Sarah Juliet Shaw, Philip Skinner, Lance-Patrick Strickland, Alyssa Rae Surrette, Gary Vincent, Janelle Yull

Performances through June 19 at Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston, 617 Lexington Street, Waltham, MA; Box Office 781-891-5600 or www.reaglemusictheatre.com

Step right up and buy your ticket for what is sure to be one of the best rides of the 2016 summer theater season. Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston opens its 48th season with the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Carousel, brought vividly to life by a Broadway veteran, award-winning regional performers, an ensemble of local talent, and the eye-popping choreography of Rachel Bertone, who also directs the incredible production. Music Director Dan Rodriguez and Conductor Jeffrey Leonard, fronting an 18-piece orchestra, collaborate with Bertone to transport the audience to late nineteenth century coastal Maine, evoking the sounds of the midway, the flavors of a clambake, and the natural beauty of the woods and the ocean.

Taking nothing away from the stellar performances (all of the principals knock it out of the park), Bertone's work is the number one reason to see this show. If, for some unimaginable reason, you were restricted to an abridged viewing, your understanding and appreciation would not suffer if the musical numbers you experienced were the opening scene played out during "Carousel Waltz," the ensemble dances in "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and "Blow High, Blow Low," the first act finale, and the powerful, moving ballet late in the second act. What they have in common is the overarching story-telling capacity of the dance sequences, above and beyond what may be expressed in the lyrics or the libretto, and in all of them, Bertone's original choreography is skillfully and artistically rendered by the company. Special mention must be made of Kyra Christopher who plays the role of Louise Bigelow and is exquisitely heartbreaking in the latter ballet.

The staying power of the musicals written by Rodgers and Hammerstein is unparalleled and the score of Carousel is a prime example. "If I Loved You," "June Is Bustin' Out All Over," "Soliloquy," and "You'll Never Walk Alone" are, perhaps, the most familiar, but every song develops the characters and advances the story. The problem lies with deftly handling a troubling aspect of the book. Reflecting the culture of the time period (1873-1888), the relationship between the two main characters, Julie Jordan (Jennifer Ellis) and Billy Bigelow (Ciarán Sheehan), is a violent one. Although it is emphasized that he only hit her once, the abuse is emblematic of their marriage and she becomes the apologist. However, Sheehan shows an undercurrent of shame and guilt, while Ellis is clearly conflicted despite the words her character speaks. She lets us see Julie's strength and fierce need to be independent, even while portraying her vulnerability. Julie's friend Carrie Pepperidge (Jessica Kundla) is her outspoken champion, strongly urging her to leave Billy. Later in the story, Carrie has her own relationship issues due to an indiscretion on her part and the wounded ego of her fiancé. As awkward and unsettling as these plot points are, they are handled well by the production and we can see how far we've come as a society.

After a few wrong tones in the overture, the orchestra settled in nicely to give Rodgers' tunes their due, and the cast is "bustin' out" with inspiring singers who make us feel every lyric and note, especially the triumvirate of Ellis, Kundla, and Leigh Barrett. Ellis' crystalline soprano blends beautifully with Sheehan's robust baritone in their duet, "If I Loved You," and Kundla delights every time she opens her mouth to sing. Barrett (Nettie Fowler) reminds us why she remains one of the top tier musical theater performers in the Boston area with her stunning take on "You'll Never Walk Alone," and her rich, full soprano resonates atop the ensemble numbers. Dan Prior (the honorable stuffed shirt Enoch Snow) is the perfect vocal match for Kundla, and Todd Yard (a menacing Jigger Craigin) delivers his songs with brio.

With a 49-member ensemble, the whole is as great as the sum of its parts, but additional shout-outs to Karen Fanale (Mrs. Mullin), Rick Sherborne (The Starkeeper), and Zachary Eisenberg (Carnival Boy) who partners with Christopher in the stunning ballet. Wearing her director's hat, Bertone attends to the little details of everyone's involvement, resulting in cohesion among the cast and naturalistic tableaux. The period costumes from Costume World Theatrical and Richard Schreiber's scenic design add to the authenticity, and David Wilson's lighting provides effective nuance. The set includes a working carousel with the sounds of a calliope, but as impressive as it is when the curtain rises to reveal it, the better ride is the circle dance of human "horses" as conceived by Bertone in the carnival ballet. It is the giant feather in the cap of this splendid Carousel.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Reagle Music Theatre/@Herb Philpott (Kyra Christopher (center) and ensemble perform the Carousel ballet)

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From This Author Nancy Grossman

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