Review by Greg Bossler of Carousel: CCM Musical Theatre
When Carousel opened in 1945, it received near unanimous praise (for Richard Rodgers’ music, Oscar Hammerstein II’s libretto, and Agnes de Mille’s dances), and in 1999, Time magazine named it the best musical of the 20th century. This past weekend CCM offered a rare opportunity to experience the complete version of this landmark show.
In the wake of their success of turning Lynn Riggs’ Green Grow the Lilacs into Oklahoma!, the Theatre Guild asked Rodgers and Hammerstein to adapt Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom. Hammerstein’s Americanized version is set in a Maine fishing village during the last decade of the 19th century. Carnival barker Billy Bigelow and millworker Julie Jordan are the star-crossed lovers who face destitution as a result of their budding romance. Her cousin Nettie lends a helping hand, but when Julie becomes pregnant, Billy makes a desperate choice to join his friend Jigger in an ill-fated robbery.
The score, a three-hour behemoth that is sung-through in large parts, was beautifully guided under the baton of Roger Grodsky, and the orchestral and vocal performances were high points of the evening. Ben Biggers is a lighter baritone than the usual Billy Bigelow, but he delivered a nuanced and powerful “Soliloquy.” Samantha Pollino’s crystal soprano lent a playful appeal to Julie Jordan’s teasing “If I Loved You” and warmed to show a more mature side in the plaintive “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” Another highlight was Brianna Barnes, who brought a full-bodied power to Nettie Fowler’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Hammerstein protégé Stephen Sondheim has said, “Oklahoma! is about a picnic, Carousel is about life and death.” Indeed, it is a dramatic marathon for the principal players, but this company was somewhat betrayed by their youth in the darker moments. The supporting cast fared better, particularly Tom Meglio as Starkeeper and Alex Stone as David Bascombe. Another standout was Chris Collins-Pisano, whose comic exploits as the pompous Enoch Snow nonetheless veered dangerously close to being from a different show.
Director-choreographer Diane Lala was more reverent with the piece than other directors have been (such as Nicholas Hytner, whose 1992 version was seen on PBS Live from Lincoln Center), but she was inventive in transforming the dancing corps into the anthropomorphic carousel of the opening waltz. She also judiciously incorporated bits of Agnes de Mille’s synchronized gestures and angular postures, notably during the second act ballet’s pas de deux with sophomores Areo Keller as Bigelow daughter Louise and Joel Flynn as a prowling carnival boy.
The other high points of the evening were the production design elements, particularly Thomas C. Ufrid’s set, which ranged from the realistically dark and forbidding Victorian wharf to the expressionistic sand dunes rendered with ceiling-high swaths of billowing tan curtains. Rebecca Senske also deserves note for her costumes, which were deliciously bright and bold in the first-act carnival atmosphere but muted and monotone in the second-act family scenes, particularly the humorous matching ensembles for the Snow family.