BWW Review: The Performers Rise to the Challenge in Stratford Festival's CAROUSEL

Stratford Festival's production of CAROUSEL opened on May 29th at the Avon Theatre. Despite an unsettling story with challenging themes, the performers in this production are able to rise to the challenge and present some of the finest song and dance that this stage has seen.

As a theatre-lover, I was familiar with CAROUSEL. I knew the music, the story, the controversial themes, and the fact that Time Magazine proclaimed it to be 'The Best Musical of the 20th Century'...but I had never actually seen it performed. Suffice it to say, I was excited as I took my seat in Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre, but I also had my trepidations. As a feminist and as someone who sits on a committee that addresses violence against women, I was not sure I would be able to fully appreciate the talent of the cast due to the fact that I knew the themes and values emphasized in the show would be upsetting. Something interesting happened during this show, however. Not only was I fully able to enjoy the raw talent expressed by each actor, set designer, musician, etc. I also found myself to be very moved by the story. Yes it was upsetting, but it was clear that despite the fact that it was written over 70 years ago...that was the point. Unsettling themes and protagonists, whose thinking is, to put it kindly, misguided, are nothing new to theatre. Plays such as THE MERCHANT OF VENICE employ this same device, and in the end, it is encouraged that audiences use the happenings in the play as a starting point for meaningful discussion and even to develop compassion for those whom they may not fully understand. More and more frequently, edgy new musicals dealing with complex and sometimes controversial issues are being produced. It is actually astounding that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein chose to do this in 1945.

Although some elements of the book of this play are outdated, the issues addressed surrounding domestic violence certainly are not. In Canada alone, there are over 40,000 cases of domestic violence documented each year-and this is just what is reported to police. This is an incredibly serious issue and any medium that brings attention to it, so long as it is done tastefully and thoughtfully, is an important part of the solution to this problem. Stratford Festival's production of CAROUSEL is indeed tastefully and thoughtfully done. It is apparent that director, Susan H. Schulman, and the entire company and artistic team, took great care to put together a show that both celebrates the phenomenal talents of all involved, but also allows for audiences to feel uncomfortable, witness the complex dynamics of unhealthy relationships, and gain a sense of compassion (albeit not necessarily understanding or justification) for all characters. What happens next, is hopefully meaningful conversations and teachable moments-something that the Stratford Festival will even be facilitating through a workshop featured in its Forum.

CAROUSEL tells the story of Julie Jordan, a young mill worker, unafraid to swim against the stream, and Billy Bigelow, a troubled Carousel Barker who falls in love with her, loses his job, and subsequently makes some atrocious life choices for himself and those he loves most, as he struggles with his own sense of self worth. As Julie, Alexis Gordon, making her Stratford debut, absolutely shines. She sings beautifully and gives her character a sense of strength and spirit that; however threatened, is never broken. Julie's strength lies in her not losing herself to the devastating circumstances that she finds herself in. In this story, Julie herself ultimately does not end up having control over how her unhealthy relationship ends, but she does recognize the benefit of it ending, and moves forward with her life and mothers her child with compassion, wisdom, and with 'her chin up high'. Ms. Gordon is able to tell this story sublimely.

As Billy Bigelow, Jonathan Winsby is tasked with quite the challenge. Is this character truly redeemable? Does he really learn his lesson or does he continue to justify his actions by the fact that he has had a hard life? The only way to play this character is to dive right into his psyche. Anything else would be dishonest to the story and the message it is trying to convey. During Billy's "Soliloquy" number as he sings about how he wants to raise his unborn child, the audience catches a glimpse of the Billy that Julie likely sees. Charming, funny, and so desperately wanting to do the right thing, despite clearly not having the tools, morals or guidance to know how to get there. It is hard to fully understand Billy, and impossible to ever excuse his actions, but it is clear that he is not a bad person. He is a misguided one doing some very bad things. The world should not give up hope for the Billy Bigelows out there...but the Julie Jordans have no obligation to stay with them either. To come to this conclusion, and to see the light in Billy, the audience needs to fully believe in the leading man. Mr. Winsby is that leading man. He leaves his heart on the stage and in doing so, he gives us hope that maybe the real-life Billy Bigelows can receive the necessary help so that their end is not like his.

A moment where Mr. Winsby is truly moving is when he reacts in utter horror as Julie tells their daughter that sometimes a person can be hit really hard and not be hurt at all. This is a challenging line in this musical-Possibly the most challenging line. Ms. Gordon's delivery and Mr. Winsby's reaction make it clear that this is not the message the show is trying to convey, but rather that it highlights the complexities of an abusive relationship where a real love does exist...but that it still does not make that relationship ok.

Although it is impossible to discuss CAROUSEL without discussing this unsettling theme, there is a lot more to it than that. There is classic music performed beautifully by the musicians and the company; there is the opportunity for gorgeous and fun set design-an opportunity which is most definitely taken advantage of by Douglas Paraschuk; and there is fantastic choreography-for many different forms of dance, by Michael Lichtefeld, and brought to life by the ensemble.

There are also delightful performances by Robin Evan Willis as Carrie Pipperidge and Sean Alexander Hauk as Enoch Snow-'When the Children are Asleep' was one of my favourite moments from this production. Another favourite moment has got to be Jacqueline Burtney's performance as Louise in 'The Ballet'. In the first half, we experience the beginnings of Billy and Julie's story in song. It is only fitting, and equally as moving to witness the beginning of their daughter's story in dance. Ms. Burtney and company left the audience completely enraptured and elicited one of the loudest applauses of the night following her ballet.

Evan Buliung, an actor known more for his Shakespearean roles, is great as Jigger Craigin...I will not even get started on that character...Alana Hibbert provides a safe, strong harbor as Nettie Fowler, and is stunning in her performance of 'You Will Never Walk Alone'. Robin Hutton plays the ridiculous Mrs. Mullin to great effect, and the entire ensemble is simply phenomenal in various song and dance numbers throughout the show.

CAROUSEL may be controversial, but there should be no controversy as to whether or not this production of it rises to the challenge. The direction is thoughtful, the cast is brilliant, and the story, even if flawed, is an important part of a bigger discussion.

CAROUSEL continues in repertory until October 16th.

Note: WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO - A Stratford Festival Forum discussion about "the complexities on both sides of violent relationships" and about how CAROUSEL broke ground on this issue, will take place at 10:45 AM on July 8th at the Studio Theatre.

Photo Credit: David Hou

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From This Author Lauren Gienow