The North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts launches its 2001 season with Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. This is the fifth production of this classic American musical since NSMT's inaugural 1955 season, the first since English director Nicholas Hytner's acclaimed Royal National Theatre revival. That production won five Tony Awards when presented by New York's Lincoln Center in 1994 and subsequently toured the US.
Veteran NSMT director/choreographer Barry Ivan leans heavily on Hytner's reinterpretation. Hytner made Carousel a darker, sexier story with no sugar coating of the issues of wife-beating, suicide or the difficulties of raising a child in a fatherless home.
Along with set designer Howard C. Jones and lighting designer Kirk Bookman, Ivan also finds inspiration in Bob Crowley's designs for the NT revival. Crowley saw the seacoast village as a small circle in a much greater universe and theatre-in-the-round is an even more perfect venue is which to express this. When Billy says to Julie "We're a couple of specks of nothin'," the audience looks up to see a canopy of stars over a floating ring of sturdy New England cottages and boats high above the stage.
For the dances Ivan plays homage to original choreographer Agnes de Mille by including some of her distinctive hand movements and steps. Ivan's long-time assistant, Kathy Meyer, breathtakingly executes de Mille's demanding, athletic expression of Louise's conflicting emotions in the Act Two ballet that allows Billy to see the unhappiness of his now adolescent daughter.
One of Ivan's own touches is to begin The Prologue with the members of the community attending a somber church service before breaking loose for an evening at the local amusement park. This helps to underscore the serious business of life and death in a New England fishing village.
Happily, one of the important differences between this production and the one at Lincoln Center is Aaron Lazar in the role of Billy Bigelow. Not only does he look and act the feisty, young carousel barker, but he has the vocal prowess to do justice to "Soliloquy" and the extended musical scene, arguably one of the finest ever written, that includes "If I Loved You."
Much credit is deserved for the casting of all the members of this smallish ensemble. One minute they are "bustin' out all over" in dance and the next they're singing "fitten fer an angels' choir." My one complaint is the inconsistent use of "Down East" accents, which, admittedly, isn't helped by Hammerstein's odd representation if the dialect in the book and lyrics.
I could also quarrel with the black jeans Billy wore and the contemporary leather pants that his unsavory companion Jigger struts about in. The rest of the cast is outfitted in appropriate 19th century attire in a lovely palette of salt and sun-faded colors. Many of these costumes were designed by Jane Greenwood and provided by the Houston Grand Opera.
Carousel runs through June 3. Appearing next will be Just So June 12 - July 1, from the creative team of last year's Eliot Norton Award winning production of HONK! Tickets can be purchased by calling the Box Office, (978) 232-7200, in person at 62 Dunham Road, Beverly (Exit 19 off Rte. 128), on the Web site at www.nsmt.org or through tickets.com.