John Culbert sets the New England fishing village scene, during the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, by utilizing slats of wood as background. His flooring rakes forward toward the audience. Only a single, small, symbolic horse hangs above the stage, thus representing a carousel. With imaginative back lighting, Mark McCullough shifts mood from somber to celebrative to (literally) heavenly throughout the nearly three hours worth of theater. Jacqueline Firkins' wardrobe is an excellent complement. This is the story of Billy Bigelow (Nicholas Belton), a handsome, boyish, appealing carnival barker who meets blonde Julie Jordan (Johanna McKenzie Miller), a young woman working in a factory. They sing the familiar "If I Loved You" together, and soon enough she is pregnant.
Production numbers such as "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and "Blow High, Blow Low" highlight the first act until Billy embodies "Soliloquy." Here, he must consider life, death, fatherhood, and his own character as he traverses a difficult number. Belton doesn't possess the type of vocal resonance as did John Raitt, who must have been excellent when he opened the musical on Broadway in 1945. The charismatic, emotive Belton provides a troubled, confused Billy.
Supporting Carousel players are, to a person, superb. As Carrie Pipperidge, Julie's close friend, actress Jessie Mueller is sharp-tongued, animated and strong. She is slated to marry Enoch Snow (Rob Lindley) and the two combine nicely on "When the Children are Asleep." Enoch, through the director's interpretation or his own or the scripting, is fairly bland. Why would Carrie find him intriguing?
Jigger Craigin (Matthew Brumlow) is Billy's buddy. It is Jigger who devises the plan through which Billy, theoretically, will become rich. It doesn't work, and Billy, rather than going to jail, knifes himself to death. Ultimately, Billy receives a shot at redemption and he returns to the coastal Maine village to possibly assist with his troubled daughter Louise (Laura Scheinbaum in a fine turn), now fifteen. Ultimately, he sings a reprise of "If I Loved You," and the performance concludes with the full company issuing forth "You'll Never Walk Alone," a classic song. Hollis Resnik (Mrs. Mullin and Heavenly Friend) and Ernestine Jackson (Nettie, Starkeeper, and Dr. Seldon) are veteran performers who are nearly perfect in somewhat lesser roles.
The music, supplied by Rodgers and Hammerstein, continues to transport theatergoers, and the instrumental musicians, split to either side of the stage at the rear, are undeniably talented. Doug Peck, musical director and pianist, deserves significant praise for his facilitation. Randy Duncan's choreography is essential as it keeps the actors and the production (with its spinning carousel motif) moving. The set design might at first glance seem simple but it winds and curves forward and that could make things difficult for actors in motion.
This is oftentimes a serious, provocative Carousel, short on whimsy. True, "A Real Nice Clambake," opening the second act, is quite engaging. Yes, there is a beach ballet. Further, I would not call the musical a tragedy. The final scene is of great importance. Billy has the opportunity to convey both to his wife and daughter that he loves them. Conclusion: he may very well be heavenly bound.
During portions of the current production, I mused upon Raitt as Billy. And what would Robert Goulet have done with such a role? Back to the present: The Court/Long Wharf presentation boasts affecting, excellent acting through an insightful, perceptive vision of Carousel. The casting choices are successful and of great value. It's not an easy musical but a cerebral and successful one.
Carousel continues at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre through June 1st. For ticket and schedule information, call (203) 787-4282 or visit www.longwharf.org.
- Fred Sokol