Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Carousel"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


music by Richard Rodgers
book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II,
based on LILIOM by Ferenc Molnar
original dances by Agnes de Mille

directed by Robert J. Eagle
musical direction by Karen Gahagan
original Agnes de Mille choreography recreated by Gemze de Lappe

Carrie Pipperidge … Kristen Watson
Julie Jordan … Sarah Pfisterer
Mrs. Mullin … Cheryl McMahon
Billy Bigelow … Nat Chandler
Policeman … Paul Reynolds
David Bascombe … Ron Brinn
Nettie Fowler … Shirley Jones
Enoch Snow … Nathan Troup
Jigger Craigin … Victor Warren
Hannah … Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck
Boatswain … Victor Wisehart
Jonathan … Nathan Hylan
Arminy … Katrina Shinay
Captain … Jean-Alfred Chavier
Heaven Friend (Brother Joshua) … Roy Earley
Starkeeper … Harold W. Walker
Louise … Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck
Miss Snow … Lael Van Keuren
Carnival Boy … Victor Wisehart
Enoch Snow, Jr. … Jake Aaron
Principal … Christopher King
Doctor Seldon … Harold W. Walker

Snow Children:

Yuval Biran; Andrew Curtin; Patricia Logan; Dillon Longmoore;
Brianna Maguire; Jacob Roll; Kelsey Thomas



Jake Aaron; Megan Bergeron; George Bouchard; Kathleen Brophy;
Chris Brucato; Jean-Alfred Chavier; Christiana Curtin; Katie Duff;
Annie Gane; Timothy Grady; Meghan Hales; Shannon Keaveney;
David Kehs; Ashley Kenney; Christopher King; Rob Klimeczko;
Ben Layman; Linda Cottone Lodi; Beth M. Martin; Andy McLeavey;
Stuart Milne; Molly O’Neal; Bob Pascucci; Ellen Peterson; Margie Quinlan;
Angela Richardson; Rachelle Riehl; Katrina Shinay, Betsy Soulé;
Andrew Swansburg; Gay Vincent


Sarah Case; Christopher Dean; Stephanie Feigen; Drew Franklin;
Rachel Goldberg; Jonathon Grant; Sabrina Jacob; Matthew Warner Kiernan;
Katie McCue; J. P. Qualters; Joshua Schulteis; William Sweet;
Melissa Sybil; Lael Van Keuren; Victor Wisehart

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! may have broken new ground but their next collaboration CAROUSEL is the far greater work. OKLAHOMA! made strides in its integration of plot, song and dance; CAROUSEL did likewise but also took emotional risks in its love story between Billy Bigelow, a bullying carnival barker, and Julie Jordan, a naïve-but-wise girl who works in a cotton mill --- their star-crossed union concludes with Billy’s suicide after a bungled robbery attempt, their daughter Louise being ostracized and Billy being allowed to come back to earth to redeem himself and inspire and comfort his loved ones. Those who dismiss Rodgers & Hammerstein as so much corn may be startled over how dark CAROUSEL really is, being based on Ferenc Molnar’s tragic fantasy LILIOM which is set in Budapest and boasts an even less sympathetic hero. LILIOM’s curtain falls on wife and daughter discussing the mysterious stranger who has just visited them while the dead man, having failed in his mission, goes off in defeat --- as downbeat an ending as one can imagine. (Mr. Puccini wanted to make an Italian opera of it all; an opera, yes --- but an American musical?) The Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein switched LILIOM’s locale to a coastal New England town, beefed up the supporting roles, supplied a score chockfull of standards and added a bittersweet, stirring finale but they also retained the original’s darkness with Mr. Hammerstein incorporating much of Mr. Molnar’s dialogue into his lyrics and libretto. (Interesting how both OKLAHOMA! and CAROUSEL were born and succeeded during WWII with the former becoming a symbol of national pride while the latter encouraged its audiences to walk through the wind and the rain with their heads held high….)

CAROUSEL will always be my favorite R&H musical but after seeing the Reagle Players’ near-perfect production I must say that the Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein did not perfect their new formula until SOUTH PACIFIC and THE KING AND I (ALLEGRO, following CAROUSEL, was an experimental failure); after sitting through many a streamlined New Musical, I now found two of CAROUSEL’s ballets slowing down the action rather than advancing it, the choruses recalling operetta villagers setting the scene and if OKLAHOMA!’s old-time burlesque amongst Ado Annie, Will Parker and Ali Hakim gets laughs, why not give Carrie Pipperidge, Enoch Snow and Jigger Cragin a crack at it, as well? CAROUSEL’s three achievements are the twenty-minute Bench Scene where Billy and Julie alternate between song and dialogue in their attempts to express themselves, culminating in “If I Loved You” (so important to the plot as the leads are rarely together, afterwards), Billy’s “Soliloquy” which foreshadows “Rose’s Turn” and any number of New Musical inner-monologues, and the Louise Ballet which encapsulates all we need to know about the girl. Happily, the Bench Scene and “Soliloquy” are wonderfully sung, here, and the Ballet is memorably executed down to the last Snow child (there is a beautiful, shivery moment when Louise appears in golden light behind a scrim, seconds before her dance) --- choreographer Gemze de Lappe has performed an invaluable service to theatergoers and dance historians alike by recreating Agnes de Mille’s original ballets; how fragile a piece of choreography becomes, risking extinction, once dancers have stopped dancing it! (Think about it.)

This CAROUSEL was my first encounter with the Reagle Players and a nicer introduction could not have been extended. Robert J. Eagle has lovingly directed without modern-day signposting (all the nicer since Julie is a politically-incorrect victim) and his cast performs with freshness and vigor so that the Old becomes New, again. An actor taking on Billy Bigelow has his work cut out for him: not only must he earn an audience’s grudging sympathy, he must also possess a solid baritone with a ringing tenor top. Nat Chandler has the vocal and physical requirements though his characterization is too much calculated preening instead of being an unloved child at heart (after all, Billy transfers his affections from one mother figure to another). In terms of iconography, Mr. Chandler’s performance works well enough as a musical-comedy “tough”; I would have welcomed a harder, more Liliom-like approach. Sarah Pfisterer’s pretty, homespun Julie is a true ingénue creation, virginal but sturdy, performed without an overlay of sentiment and emotional distancing so that her “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?”, a submission to male dominance, becomes the stance that this particular woman has adopted to get her through her particular situation. (When Mr. Chandler and Ms. Pfisterer kiss in the Bench Scene, they echo the famous image of John Raitt and Jan Clayton in the original clinch.)

Kristen Watson and Nathan Troup are fine and funny as Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, the secondary leads and comedy relief, even if Ms. Watson is really playing Ado Annie and Mr. Troup, with his Gay 90s look, seems to be declaiming with a Southern accent. Victor Warren contributes a scene-stealing Jigger Craigin, playing him as an amusing sneak rather than as a threat and filtering his lyrics through Sprechstimme; Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck, a mature Louise, is moving in her ballet as she tries to reprise the character’s childhood frolic but is now burdened with an adult’s broken heart and Cheryl McMahon, bless her, fleshes out the non-singing role of Mrs. Mullins to become a triple foil to Billy, Julie and Jigger --- if Ms. Pfisterer brings tears to your eyes at Billy’s death, it is because Ms. McMahon has set the scene by pushing through the hushed crowd, stifling her own tears as she smoothes back Billy’s forelock and silently exiting through the crowd and out of the musical --- Billy’s death is her loss, as well. Shirley Jones, the production’s star, played Julie in the celebrated film version; here she is Cousin Nettie --- Ms. Jones is such a warmly-loved performer that I will merely say that her voice is now unsteady in the upper register so that “You’ll Never Walk Alone” loses some of its power but she has mellowed into a still-beautiful, dignified presence; to see Ms. Jones embrace Ms. Pfisterer at Billy’s death is to witness a passing of the torch.

The bane of many a CAROUSEL production is how to get a working carousel onto a stage for the Prologue and then whisk it off quietly during the Bench Scene. Matt Rudman and Richard Scheiber’s creation is modest and slow-moving and I didn’t hear a peep from it after their park-curtain hid it from view. Their scenic designs show how old-fashioned ways of moving from scene to scene are often the best: (1) a scene concludes; (2) while a musical interlude plays, a scenic curtain is lowered; (3) the next scene --- often a brief one --- plays before the curtain while the scene behind it is changed; (4) the scene before the curtain concludes, the curtain rises on the new scene and the action hasn’t ground to a halt. (Case closed.) An extra nod must go to both the company’s dancers --- led by Ms. Hilsabeck and Victor Wisehart --- and its orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey P. Leonard. Several times I have scribbled about Boston having few accomplished dancers of which she can boast; looking over the cast list, I couldn’t help noticing that many CAROUSEL dancers are not starred to indicate Equity status and are therefore, I assume, local talent. If that be the case, then the Reagle company is a good starting place for Boston to turn to for dancers, especially when they are almost as good as those in the recently-closed SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS at the Goodspeed Opera House; suddenly, dance makes perfect sense in a musical, again….

I was once taken to task by a local musician for not listing the members of a production’s orchestra (he was in said orchestra, of course); since then, I have always done so. After looking through the CAROUSEL program several times over, I could not find any musician names save for Mr. Leonard; suffice it to say that he leads an admirable ensemble that never once called attention to itself in a negative sense; there is even a harp in the pit --- an honest-to-God, plinka-plunka HARP --- for the tear-jerking moments. If the Reagle Players could supply a harp, why couldn’t the Barrington Stage Company do likewise for its scaled-down but respectable production of FOLLIES? “In Buddy’s Eyes” would have been all the richer for it.

"Carousel" (11 - 23 July)
Robinson Theatre, 617 Lexington Street, WALTHAM

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide