Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Carousel Bustin' Out All Over
5th Avenue Theatre


Brandon O'Neill and Laura Griffith
In the canon of classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, Carousel, the tale of a rough and tumble carnival barker who beds then weds a pretty factory worker, is the one show people seem to love or hate. For years I had only seen the tepid, bowdlerized movie version starring the Oklahoma! film duo of Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in which Jones showed she hadn't quite acquired the dramatic chops she would later be awarded an Oscar for, and MacRae (a quickie re-cast for a contract breaking Frank Sinatra) has the voice but not the emotional gravitas. Last seen at the 5th Avenue in the mid-1990s tour of the acclaimed Nicholas Hytner staging, this home-grown Carousel has much to recommend it. Despite a few lulls over the near two and a half hour running time, director Bill Berry has instilled a snappy pace and personalized touches, but primarily he has hired a whoppingly talented cast of actor-singers, augmented by talented featured and ensemble dancers from Spectrum Dance Theatre. Together, they bring the at times stodgy yet venerable Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II piece to generally vibrant life.

Mimicking their Oklahoma! formula, Rodgers & Hammerstein retold the play Liliom, resetting it in a Maine seaport town around the turn of the century, spotlighting two fairly innocent factory girls, Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge, who frequent Mrs. Mullin's carousel and side show. Carrie is newly betrothed to a right proper gent named Enoch Snow. Julie, a more restless spirit is intrigued by Billy Bigelow. They wed in short order, and when Julie finds herself with child it triggers a strong paternal emotional response in her ne'er do well spouse. Spoiler alert if you don't know the show. His poor choices lead to his demise, but he finds a possibility of redemption from purgatory if he does a good deed for his fatherless daughter Louise on a one day return to Earth.

The corn (or should I say clams?) in Hammerstein's script is as high as several elephants' eyes, but the straightforward honesty of the lead performances make it all go down smoothly (even with varying degrees of success with New England accents). Brandon O'Neill's swarthy good looks and powerhouse vocals are a large part of what makes him a fine Billy, but he also brings a cocky humor and playfulness to the character's early scenes before his life spirals downward. As for Billy's landmark soliloquy, it's an emotional highpoint of the show, especially O'Neill's realization that his child might be a girl, not a boy. As Julie, Laura Griffith has one of the best sopranos in town, and invests her role with spunk, a bit of attitude and sass, and a deep emotional core that pours forth in honest and affecting tears at the point of Billy's passing. But, though individually strong, there is no particular chemistry between Griffith and O'Neill where some genuine heat is really needed; some of this is due to some particularly odd staging of their big love song, "If I Loved You," which comes across as playing to the audience, not the acting partner.

Even though her character is virtually a more refined version of Oklahoma!'s Ado Annie, I have seldom seen Billie Wildrick give a more delightful reading of a role than what she does with Julie's confidante Carrie Pipperidge. Wildrick is vocally pleasing and has nearly as much to sing as Griffith, with a particular nod to her rendition of "When I Marry Mr. Snow" and she and Griffith make totally feasible BFFs. Joshua Downs makes an agreeable impression as the uptight and prudish Enoch Snow, and puts his rich voice to grand use in Carrie and Enoch's tender "When the Children Are Asleep." Anne Allgood is a vocal dream front and center in "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and the hymn-like "You'll Never Walk Alone," and with minimal dialogue makes you see her cousin Nettie not only as Julie's Earth Mother but as a linchpin of the community. Eric Ankrim registers well in a change of pace bad boy role as Jigger, Billy's unscrupulous friend and Snow's unlikely competition for Carrie. The redoubtable Cynthia Jones fashions a plum performance in the tiny role of Billy's haughty carousel boss-lady, nailing welcome laughs wherever she can squeeze them in. Sean G. Griffin is deliciously whimsical and endearing as the Starkeeper and Dr. Seldon, and Madelyn Koch makes a fine impression as the dejected Louise, as capable an actress as she is a vibrant dancer in Louise's act two ballet.

The minor roles and featured ensemble are chock a block with Seattle leading players—for example, Broadway vet Allan Fitzpatrick in the six-line role of mill owner Bascombe, Richard Gray as a Heavenly Friend, Frances Leah King, Candice Donehoo, Jessica Skerritt, and Dane Stokinger. They add much to the rich vocal sound of the show, which is under the confident musical direction of Ian Eisendrath, who also conducts the lush, full bodied orchestra.

Choreographer Donald Byrd and his Spectrum Dance Theatre troupe do spectacularly well by the aforementioned ballet and the staging of the story-setting opening, as well as by Jigger's featured number "Blow High, Blow Low," but the admittedly rousing and well-danced "June is Bustin' Out All Over," as close to a celebration of earthly desires of the flesh as Hammerstein ever penned, is played cute and not as a bunch of horny sailors and winsome wenches celebrating the oncoming summer's madness. The scrumptious set by Martin Christoffel suggests more than it literalizes, and all to the good, and lighting designer Mike Baldassari beautifully paints landscapes of color. Sarah Nash Gates' costumes nail the period and then some, and sound designer Zachary Williamson has made certain the balance between orchestra and vocalists is exactly right.

And to director Berry and musical director Eisendrath, thank you for omitting "Geraniums in the Winder" and "The Highest Judge of All," two of the dreariest songs R&H ever wrote, as it keeps an already lengthy show from being way too long. I have only seen Carousel twice onstage now. And that is fine with me. Unlike The King and I and several of others, I think it is a show to be savored just every once in awhile, despite the glories of much of its score.

Carousel runs through March 1, 2015, at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; For tickets and information call 206-625-1900 or visit www.5thavenue.org.


Photo: Mark Kitaoka

- David Edward Hughes




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