Reviewed by Claudia Perry
For their final offering this season Walnut Street Theatre is presenting Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carousel" on the Mainstage. Purported to be their greatest musical achievement, it derives most of its power from the original brilliantly poignant play, "Liliom" by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Moln_r. To make the story more palatable for American audiences the authors have wisely reset the milieu from a European city to a small New England whaling town. They have also watered down the brutality of the story and made the ending a redemptive one for its leading character, Liliom, whom they've renamed Billy Bigelow. Essentially the play is about the fact that in this life we do not choose love, rather love chooses us and hence the agony and the ecstasy that ensues. And because of this universality we can all relate to Julie Jordan's plight. Add to this the fact that many women find dangerous men attractive, though inevitably to their detriment, and you have a story that still rings true.
In a chestnut shell, Julie Jordan, a young mill worker, falls in love with the swaggering Billy Bigelow, a carnival barker who gives her a ride on the carousel. They soon marry and Billy leaves his job as his employment there is tied up with the fact that he was sleeping with Mrs. Mullin, the owner of the carousel. Not having a trade, Billy sits at home idle, taking his misery out on Julie (who lost her job at the mill because she stayed out all night with Billy). When Billy discovers that he is to become a father he is desperate to make money. He accepts the offer of his ne'er-do-well friend, Jigger and assists in a robbery that goes awry. Drawing the knife he has concealed in his coat, Billy tries to commit suicide but is shot dead by the police instead. Up in heaven Billy is given one more chance to go back to earth to right his wrongs. It is now 15 years later and Billy visits his now grown up daughter and offers her words of encouragement and is redeemed.
Composer Richard Rodgers has given us some of his greatest ballads, "If I Loved You" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" and of course the famous "Soliloquy", a musical monologue (beautifully built by Oscar Hammerstein II) wherein Billy seals his tragic fate. Music and Vocal Director, Douglass G. Lutz extracts a sumptuous, full sound from an orchestra that has been pared down to 12 pieces. It is as lush as the original much fuller Broadway version. And under his savvy direction (and possibly that of the Sound Designer, Ryk Lewis) we hear every note and every word of this beautiful score sung well and enunciated clearly. Director, Bruce Lumpkin has created a stunningly beautiful production to look at. The sets by John Farrell are highly picturesque and the costumes by Colleen Grady are gorgeously color keyed to match. The opening sequence, a Prologue during which the orchestra plays "The Carousel Waltz", is truly a feast for the eyes. We see the carnies come and set up their fair, watch the sun set and the stars come out as the neon lights set a moving Ferris wheel ablaze. The choreography by Michelle Gaudette is balletic and perfectly stylized for the period the play takes place in, (Molnar's play was written in 1908. One assumes "Carousel" takes place within this pre-World War I period.) though perhaps a little too difficult for this corps of dancers to execute. However, the "Ballet" in the second act is especially engaging to watch as Kristen Paulicelli(Louise) and Ryan Watkinson(Carnival Boy) both dance movingly on a filmy, dream seascape. (Another great visual effect created by the design team.)
In this production, at first look, Julie Jordan (Julie Hanson) and her friend, Carrie Pipperidge (Cary Michelle Miller) appear to be mere teenagers and Billy Bigelow an older, cradle robber. In point of fact, girls who worked the mills in this era were probably no more than 16 or 17 years old. But the age disparity is at first unsettling. The girls giggle like Valley girls in their first number together as Carrie describes her beau in "Mister Snow". We accept the school girlish affection they show each other as sweet but as the scene progresses the superficial BFF relationship wears thin. What should lie underneath is Carrie's sincere respect and admiration for Enoch Snow, her intended. For though there is no grand consuming passion, she truly believes that what she feels for him is love. And what sets Julie apart from the other girls at the mill is her unrelenting and fearless desire to be with Billy no matter what the cost. Unfortunately, we don't get that in this scene. However, both women possess terrific voices and sing the score incredibly well.
Jeffrey Coon was born to sing the role of Billy Bigelow. He attacks the score with all the vigor and prowess that he has at his command. His rendition of the "Soliloquy" is simply masterful and garnered a "Bravo!" from me. Actorially he's captured the restless, unhappy nature of the man, but unfortunately allows this trait to eclipse the charm that makes Billy so irresistible to women. There is no doubt that Billy is a blackguard, but he's a charming blackguard. And though he is a carnival barker, you can't bark at an audience all night and win their hearts. And his bullying of Julie too often leaves her cowering. His best scene work is when he is onstage with Mary Martello. As Mrs. Mullin, Ms. Martello is so firmly rooted in the reality of her character that she brings everyone up to her level. Most importantly, she brings the dreaded "S" word onto the stage. Yes, sex! She touches Billy every chance she gets. It is desire that drives her character and it's desire that should drive Billy and Julie. Though Julie is an innocent when Billy meets her, she is still fearless. She's the only one of the girls to stand up to him and that's why he desires her, falls in love with her and leaves his job at the carousel. Conversely, Julie gives up her only means of support for Billy. Sex is the bait and love is the trap. But in this case - it's a not so tender trap. Christopher Marlowe Roche plays the villain we love to hate, Jigger Craigin, with just the right amount of comic salaciousness. William Hartery has a light, clear, tenor voice and is appropriately prissy and jolly as Enoch Snow, though he borders on being a caricature. There is no doubt that all these actors possess the necessary tools to create the characters that make the play work. But unfortunately, everyone is on a different playing field and no one has leveled that field.
The story of "Carousel" is highly sentimental - much more so than the original play. In the final scene when Billy comes back to earth and whispers encouraging words to his daughter at her graduation while the cast sings "You'll Never Walk Alone", there shouldn't be a dry eye in the house. I'm an easy cry. In fact, I cry at the drop of a hat. I should have been blubbering like a baby. But for me the hat never dropped. It's as if Mr. Lumpkin has baked us this perfectly exquisite looking, delectable confection festooned with lusciously rich icing. But, unfortunately, when we cut into it we find that he's left out the cake.