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Chicago by John Olson

Carousel
Court Theatre
(Co-production with Long Wharf Theatre)

Carousel
Johanna McKenzie Miller and Nicholas Belton
It was about six years ago that the Court Theatre gained attention with its production of My Fair Lady as a play with music, rather than a full-scale musical. Since then, they've explored a number of musical dramas with strong dramatic credentials - Raisin, The Importance of Being Ernest and James Joyce's The Dead among them. Their Carousel, directed by Charles Newell, is a worthy reexamination of the show that, in Nicholas Hytner's 1992 Royal National Theatre and 1994 Lincoln Center productions of the early '90s, began the reexamination of the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein that continued with the Broadway and West End revivals of Oklahoma! and The King and I (and presumably the soon-to-open South Pacific at Lincoln Center). Those revivals revealed these classics as more sexually charged and socially conscious than we might have believed on the basis of their sanitized movie versions, all released within a few years of each other between 1955 and 1958.

Carousel, though, was clearly the darkest of these hits and its treatment of social structures and gender roles was always there for those who wanted to see it. Hammerstein's marvelously economical "park bench" scene in which the New England circa 1890 carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Nicholas Belton) hooks up with millworker Julie Jordan (Johanna McKenzie Miller) could stand on its own as a one-act play. He's handsome and cocky but betrays a loneliness and insecurity that will lead him to give up (at least openly) his man-about-town status for Julie, the independent girl who's been infatuated with him for some time. Billy and Julie both rebel from the relative security offered by their employers the controlling carousel owner Mrs. Mullin (in a deliciously nasty portrayal by Hollis Resnik) and the paternalistic mill owner Mr. Bascombe (Neil Friedman). The good girl's attraction to a bad boy (and self-proclaimed handsomest man in town) is obvious. Julie willingly misses her curfew at the mill dormitory for a chance to be with Billy. When pushed, he leaves the employ of Mrs. Mullin, an older woman whose lust for him has probably been satisfied more than once.

Like Hytner before him, Newell has cast a younger man as Billy, which makes it much easier for us to see the character's insecurities than it was watching the big and seemingly invulnerable baritones like John Raitt and Gordon MacRae who were so closely associated with the role. Belton has looks that could charm the local girls, but a slight enough build to suggest he'd have a hard time making it on the whaling ships that provide employment for the other men of the town. He sports a decent New England accent and has the sort of tough-guy demeanor that could belong to a cocky Red Sox fan trying to pick a fight with a Yankees supporter outside Fenway Park. It's hinted Billy may have been abused earlier in life and he eventually abuses Julie as well. McKenzie Miller says much about Julie, even without much explicatory dialogue. She's independent and sure enough of herself to leave security behind for a chance with the hottest guy in town and, as wardrobed and made-up here, pretty but not sexy enough to expect another shot at him if she passes up this opportunity.

Newell takes the secondary couple of Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow more seriously than the traditional "comic secondary couple" of musical comedies. Jessie Mueller's Carrie is a little bawdy and worldly at heart, but in no way the ditz as she's usually played, and Carrie is smart enough to know that Mr. Enoch Snow offers her a good way out of the mill. Rob Lindley's Mr. Snow is more complex than the comically stuffed shirt of more traditional interpretations thoughtful, ambitious and perhaps a just a bit scared of the world.

Newell's focus on the situation and characters is aided by his choice to dial down the traditional musical comedy elements, and to some extent the music itself. His cast performs the dialogue leisurely and carefully. They act the songs with an emphasis on the dramatic meaning of each line, and if that means taking a breath where it might interrupt a musical phrase, so be it. Frequently, the actors follow their songs quickly into dialogue, without leaving the audience time to applaud the number. Newell's decision to re-assign lines and phrases from full-chorus to individual characters is a more realistic and character-driven approach as well. He takes this a step further, and perhaps a step too far, by giving slower and thoughtful paces to the usually rousing "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and "A Real Nice Clambake."

Further grey-scaling Carousel from the traditional Technicolor of a golden age musical, Newell's action is played on John Culbert's unit set of rough-hewn brown and grey wood, suggesting the piers and clapboard houses of a New England coastal village; and dressing the cast in the muted earth-tones of Jacqueline Firkins' costumes. The set simply suggests the carousel through colored lights that peer through the spaces between boards. Their little fishing village is no fantasy Brigadoon, but suggestive of the hard life the factory workers and fishermen of the time must have endured. That hard work is established in the opening "Carousel Waltz" ballet by choreographer Randy Duncan. In it, the cast pantomimes their job activities before depicting the meeting of Julie and Billy at the Carousel. They're accompanied beautifully by an eight-piece orchestra of strings and winds conducted by Music Director Doug Peck and playing his reduced orchestrations.

This Carousel is no minimalist interpretation, though it may have been reduced a bit too far by double-casting Ernestine Jackson as both Nettie Fowler and the Starkeeper/Dr. Seldon and making Hollis Resnik the Heavenly Friend as well as the evil Mrs. Mullin. Their earlier characters are too important to double-cast without risking the audience's interpretation that they are somehow connected in a way the authors didn't intend. Particularly with Miss Jackson, the fact that her two characters sing "You'll Never Walk Alone" suggest a connection, though it's nice to hear Miss Jackson's take on the song again.

If there's a disadvantage to Newell's realistic approach to Carousel, it's that it makes the second act fantasy scenes after Billy's death widely thought to be overly sentimental seem to be even more of an easy way to put a hopeful spin on a tragic story. Still, it's not the purpose of a revival to fix things that - for those who believe they are wrong were wrong all along, even in the source material. A more worthy goal is to show the merits of the piece that not only endure, but that may be more fully explored and discussed by a contemporary audience and in that this production most definitely succeeds.

Carousel will be performed Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago through April 13. Tickets available at the Box Office, by phone (773-753-4472 or online at www.CourtTheatre.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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