Reviewed by Judy Richter
With its near-operatic qualities and, at least for today's sensibilities, somewhat problematic plot, "Carousel" presents its share of challenges. This is particularly true for a college-community troupe like Foothill Music Theatre, but as director Jay Manley, his cast and crew have shown over the years, they're mostly up to the task.
The show's considerable strengths and most serious weakness are apparent from the start. Catherine Snider's orchestra has intonation and unity problems in the Prologue ("The Carousel Waltz") that pop up throughout the show. On the other hand, Manley's deft touch, aided by Tyler Risk's inventive choreography and Joe Ragey's fluid set design, makes an immediate impact: Like cogs in a machine, young women toil in unison at the looms in Bascombe's cotton mill in a New England coastal town about 1900. As a giant clock reaches 6 p.m., the women tear off their work smocks, don their bonnets and flock to the carnival and carousel that have been taking shape behind them. This opening apparently was inspired by the approach taken by British director Nicholas Hytner for a 1992 Royal National Theatre revival seen in San Francisco in 1996. It works beautifully here.
First produced in 1945, "Carousel" was created by the same team responsible for the landmark "Oklahoma!" with music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and choreography by Agnes De Mille. It is based on a 1909 play "Liliom" by Ferenc Molnár, a Hungarian. Its main characters are Julie Jordan, played with quiet, dreamy determination by Mary Melnick, and the carousel barker, Billy Bigelow, a belligerent ladies' man played by Carmichael Blankenship. Because Julie sees past Billy's rough exterior into the more sensitive man inside, they're immediately attracted to each other, singing the soaring "If I Loved You." Their subsequent marriage is rocky, marred by his hitting her, but Julie remains loyal. When Billy learns that she's pregnant, he begins to realize that he has to become more responsible in the demanding, highly theatrical "Soliloquy," well done by Blankenship, the show's only Equity performer. However, his attempt to steal money goes awry, leading to his suicide and relocation to purgatory, where he's given a chance to redeem himself.
Serving as foils to the Julie-Billy relationship are Julie's best friend, Carrie Pipperidge, played too chirpily by Katie Blodgett, and her intended, ambitious fisherman Enoch Snow, played by Michael Rhone, a good singer who finds the right balance between Enoch's essential goodness and his pomposity. They're featured in "Mister Snow," "When the Children Are Asleep" and Enoch's poignant "Geraniums in the Winder." Julie's cousin Nettie Fowler serves as a mother figure to Julie and an unofficial leader among the townspeople. Ruth E. Stein excels in Nettie's "You'll Never Walk Alone," but her voice isn't as well suited to other songs like "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and "A Real Nice Clambake." The villain of the show is the no-good Jigger Craigin, played with the right edge by Hank Lawson, who leads the excellent men's chorus in the exuberant "Blow High, Blow Low," a scene marked by a terrific, athletic men's dance.
Dancing takes center stage in a key scene in the second act when the deceased Billy returns to Earth to observe his 15-year-old daughter, Louise, the lithe, graceful Sarah Blodgett, as she dances with the Carnival Boy, the stalwart Gary Stanford.
The handsome costumes are by Janis Bergmann, the evocative lighting by Kurt Landisman. The sound design by Scott Murray and Liz Delong had some technical problems at the reviewed performance. Overall, though, Manley and his team have created an admirable production of a musical theater classic.