Ever since it opened in 1945, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel has been highly esteemed by audiences, by critics, and by Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves, who considered it their favorite among their shows. In 1999, Time magazine named it "the best musical of the 20th century" (variously cited as "the greatest" or "the most important"I haven't been able to find the original citation in Time).
That's a heavy burden to bear. Does Carousel live up to its acclaim? Well, it's innovative in its construction, it has two of the greatest theatre songs ever written ("If I Loved You" and "You'll Never Walk Alone"), one of the most melodic instrumental pieces ("The Carousel Waltz"), and a tear-jerking (but not maudlin) ending. But it also has a little too much filler material for my taste. If not for that, it might deserve the title.
A sailors' chorus song, "Blow High, Blow Low", and its associated dance number are extraneous (a shame, because the orchestra sounds its most symphonic during this piece), and they follow another out-of-place song and dance, the well-known "June Is Bustin' Out All Over." (You are forgiven if you thought that "June" came from Oklahoma!, which is where it rightly belongs.) The upshot is that, by the time we get to the famous "Soliloquy" (a very original way to go to intermission), the play has lost a lot of momentum. The first act never really recovers from having its emotional high point, the "If I Loved You" duet, so early on.
The second half moves along better, with more cohesiveness, and the surprise of having the scene shift to another plane of existence. The ballet sequence is just long enough, and after that the show moves almost too quickly to its conclusion. I could have used a little more time to cry.
Another potential shortcoming with Carousel is that we spend a little too much time with the secondary couple, Carrie and Enoch Snow, and not quite enough time with the leads, Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan. But in this production, it's not a problem, since Tahirih Garcia and Matthew Amend are so good as Carrie and Enoch. Tahirih is loaded with joie de vivre, and Matthew wowed me when he opened his mouth to sing as Mr. Snow. It's a pity that the vocal part is so small in this role.
Michael M. Finnegan is good as Billy, the carnival barker who all the girls fall for, but he somehow lacks the charisma to make a really big impression. This is one of those roles you need a hunky baritone for, and Michael doesn't quite fit the bill. In his big numbers, I kept worrying that he wasn't going to nail all the notes. He did, but he didn't make it look easy or natural. His acting, though, I can't fault.
Alexandra Martinez has a nice, if not soaring, soprano voice and, as with many sopranos, a few words get lost here and there in the higher reaches. But she is almost always easy to understand when singing. In an article written by Oscar Hammerstein that is reprinted in the program book, he talks about "Julie with her courage and inner strength and outer simplicity." I didn't get that from Alexandra's Julie. The outer simplicity, yes, but not the inner strength.
Among the strong supporting cast, the most delightful is Hugh Witemeyer as the Starkeeper and small-town doctor, but his role is pretty small. Cody Wesner-Ellis gets to sing the plum "You'll Never Walk Alone" and she has the operatic voice to pull it off. Bryan Durden is smooth as Jigger, the bad guy who can get other guys to do his dirty work. And Courtney Giannini both acts and dances well as Louise, Billy's teenage daughter.
The real stars of this production, though, are people you do not see on stage: Dahl Delu, the set designer, and the many people involved in constructing and moving the sets. What an amazingly professional job they have done for a company with such a limited budget. And what a shame that we only get to see the carousel for a few minutes at the start of the show.
Likewise professional are the costumes by Joe Moncada and Rosemary Castro-Gallegos, the lighting by Michael Hidalgo (except for a distracting flutter in one of the spots near the end), and props by Nicholas Beamish. Sound design by Chad Scheer, with thanks to the Sennheiser company, is excellent, but I wish there were some way to hide those mics that are taped to actors' cheeks.
The orchestra of 23 is probably the largest that Albuquerque has seen for any musical. Under the direction of Daniel Cummings, it sounds pretty lush for the most part, especially when the strings have the leading role.
Laurie Finnegan, the director, and Louis Giannini, the choreographer, have done a wonderful job coordinating this show that requires such complex staging. Unlike most musicals, the big production number comes right at the beginning, and I can't imagine the number of hours it must have taken to block it out and have everyone be in the right place at the right moment. And it all worked out perfectly. A lot of credit also goes to Myra Cochnar, the producer, for bringing all these very talented people together.
If you've read this whole review and are still wondering what the heck Carousel is about, well, it's easy enough nowadays to look up the story online, but I would rather you be surprised when you see it. And you should see it, for the high production values and so you can be singing "If I Loved You" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" for the next week. Myself, I can't get the "Carousel Waltz" out of my head, and that's not a bad earworm to have.
Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein is being presented by Landmark Musicals at the Rodey Theatre in the University of New Mexico Center for the Arts through July 28, 2013. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00, with extra Saturday 2:00 matinee on July 20. Info at landmarkmusicals.org or from the University of New Mexico ticket office.