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BWW Review: Rodgers and Hammerstein's CAROUSEL Sparkles at Arena Stage

There's something about a classic, standard musical that tugs at the heartstrings. Maybe it's the the swelling orchestra, the time-honored songs, or the amazement that an old love story can feel new again. Under the direction of Molly Smith at Arena Stage, Rodgers and Hammerstein's CAROUSEL is all of the above.

The legendary CAROUSEL, now over 70 years old, is in capable hands with Smith, who directed Arena Stage's 2011 production of OKLAHOMA! with some of the same gifted actors. Nicholas Rodriguez, a Helen Hayes award winner for his performance in OKLAHOMA!, stars as bad boy Billy Bigelow, a ruffian carousel barker who begins a romance with inexperienced mill worker Julie Jordan, as played by Betsy Morgan. Once Julie becomes pregnant, Billy considers committing armed robbery to get enough money to provide for the child. When things go horribly wrong, Billy receives one improbable chance at redemption.

The 1873 coastal Maine setting is captured beautifully in the round at the Fichandler Stage. The orchestra floats overhead within the structure of a massive wooden gazebo (set design by Todd Rosenthal) lit with sparkling carousel lights (lighting design by Keith Parham). A musical this traditional could come off as dusty and distant in a more cavernous venue, but in this intimate space, it's immersive. The stunning lead actors and energetic ensemble often roam the aisles with their sweat and tears in full view.

Rodriguez's Billy is breathtaking and exuberant, and it's immediately obvious why Julie falls for him against everyone else's recommendations. It's a testament to his performance that Billy also seems sensitive and sympathetic, commanding empathy even as we, particularly now in 2016, struggle with the concept of his domestic violence. Rodriguez takes on the extremely demanding "Soliloquy", a meditation on his wishes for his unborn child, as if it's part of his being, rather than an iconic role to act out.

Morgan makes Julie equally complex and a bit enigmatic in her portrayal of devoted love for Billy. With her strong will and decisiveness, she successfully sells the antiquated, stomach-churning notion of standing by her man despite his violence towards her.

Rodriguez and Morgan's pure, rich voices meld in wonderful chemistry in "If I Loved You," buoyed by soaring strings and harp (music direction and adaptation by Paul Sportelli). Romantic moments like this are the true highlights of CAROUSEL, when parts of the book that seem a little stilted after so many decades are overcome by the undeniable swell of the gorgeous score.

The whole cast's voices and movement are a match for the gravity of the music. Kate Rockwell is ebullient as Julie's best friend Carrie Pipperidge, reveling in songs like the charming "Mister Snow." Snow, her love interest, is Kurt Boehm, earnest and tender in "When the Children are Asleep". Ensemble numbers like "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and "Blow High, Blow Low" exhibit Parker Esse's choreography, featherlight in some places, rowdy in others. Skye Mattox leads an exquisitely expressive ballet sequence in the second act, imbued with contemporary elements and imaginative costumes (Ilona Somogyi) to transcend place and time.

This production employs an almost minimalist aesthetic, with distressed milk crates as the main props. Actors use mime (by David Leong) for the rest of the necessary props. In one scene, E. Faye Butler (as Mrs. Mullin) and Kyle Schliefer (as Jigger Craigin) mime to hilarious effect as they exchange imaginary cigarette smoke.

Ann Arvia gets a chance to shine as Julie's cousin Nettie Fowler in an emotional rendition of what is perhaps the show's most recognizable song, "You'll Never Walk Alone". Later on, the reprise could easily have been schmaltzy but is instead carried skyward by lush, sweeping chords.

CAROUSEL has aged, of course; the book is sentimental, and some of the subject matter is so anachronistic to our time that it can be off-putting. But themes of forgiveness and hope within a messy, complicated world resonate as they always will. Any earthly imperfections are easily overwhelmed by magical, musical moments that stand the test of time. Such moments are in great supply in Arena Stage's production of CAROUSEL.

Running time: approximately 2 hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.

CAROUSEL plays through December 24th, 2016, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for the American Theater, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. Tickets can be purchased at arenastage.org or by calling 202-488-3300.

Photo: cast of CAROUSEL; photo by Maria Baranova, courtesy of Arena Stage.



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