If all you knew about Rodgers and Hammerstein was The Sound Of Music, you might expect an R&H show called Carousel with its big production numbers like “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” to be all “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” especially considering its 1945 Broadway debut, over a decade before shows started getting dark and dramatic with Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story.

Think again. Despite its cotton candy façade, Carousel has at its heart a love story between a woman who marries “below her class” and a husband who, when confronted with his own inadequacies, lashes out in the only way he knows—with a slap. Hardly the stuff of “bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens.”

Downey CLO Executive Producer/Director Marsha Moode clearly made the decision not to gloss over Carousel’s darker side when she cast Robert Standley and Jill Van Velzer as carnival barker Billy Bigelow and factory worker Julie Jordan.  An actor with Stanley Kowalski on his résumé and an actress StageSceneLA considers the best (and darkest) Laurey Williams ever were perfect choices to dig deep into Billy and Julie and guarantee the audience something more than simply small town New England fluff.

The current Downey Civic Light Opera production is at its very best when Standley and Van Velzer are center stage, but there are other pleasures to be found in this 65th Anniversary revival.

Moode opens the show with adult Nettie Fowler (Ann Peck McBride) and primary school-age versions of Julie and Julie’s best friend Carrie gazing enthralled at a miniature carousel.  Then it’s off to Carousel’s eight-minute opening sequence, “Carousel Waltz,” which Moode and choreographer Janet Renslow have staged wholly in pantomime. The entire fishing village is at the local amusement park, where assorted roustabouts perform somersaults, couples flirt, families stroll, and pretty young factory workers stand in line for their turn on the carousel.  Of equal interest to them as the merry-go-round is darkly sexy Billy, though it’s clear from the start that the carousel barker only has eyes for Julie. Within hours, both Billy and Julie will have fallen in love—and lost their jobs.  

The couple soon marry, but all is not sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. Two months later Billy is still jobless, and has hit Julie, only once so far, but that’s enough for friends to advise the young bride to cut her losses and get out of an abusive marriage, something she steadfastly refuses to do. When Billy learns that Julie is pregnant, he makes a decision that will alter their lives forever. In “Soliloquy,” a seven-minute sung-through monolog that has become a Broadway classic, Billy vows prophetically, “I got to get ready before she comes!  I got to make certain that she won’t be dragged up in slums with a lot o’ bums like me. I never knew how to get money, but, I’ll try, by God I’ll try! I’ll go out and make it or steal it or take it or die!”

Carousel newbies are advised to watch for ways Rodgers and Hammerstein continued their revolutionizing of musical theater, begun two years prior with Oklahoma!  There are the extended music-and-dialog sequences which include Act One’s famous “bench scene,” featuring “If I Loved You” (R&H’s way of getting around a couple unable to declare their love outright), Billy’s thematically and musically complex “Soliloquy,” and the Act Two ballet, Carousel’s follow-up to Oklahoma!’s dream ballet.

As Julie Jordan, the incandescent Van Velzer lets us know from the get-go that the young woman has a head on her shoulders and a mind inside that head. Her decision to marry a n’er-do-well is made with full knowledge of what she’s getting into, and her decision to stick by Billy comes from a deep understanding of a man who told her on their first date, “Who’d ever want to marry a bum like me?” Van Velzer’s acting is in a word, superb, she sings angelically, and is so simply wonderful that one can’t help wishing Rodgers and Hammerstein had given Julie more to do, particularly in the second act.

Standley, magnetic as Billy, gives us a man whose outward charm and popularity mask a self-doubting victim of poverty and lack of education. After all, the only job he’s qualified to do is bark at a carnival.  The talented actor (Curly to Van Velzer’s Laurey in Downey’s Oklahoma! and her real-life husband) gives us not only Billy’s roughness but also his charm—and hints of the gentleness that Julie sees in him. His “Soliloquy” is a singing-acting tour-de-force, making director Moode’s decision to hire actors who sing as opposed to “musical theater performers” a savvy one indeed.

In supporting roles, George Champion proves himself once again an actor/chameleon par excellence, hiding his genial good nature as villainous Jigger, though Hammerstein’s book does give Champion a delightful “wrestling” scene opposite Andrea Dodson’s Carrie Pipperidge that both actors play to perfection. Dodson makes for a charming (and well sung) Carrie, and a humorously pompous Kit Wilson as Enoch Snow, her intended, has the production’s strongest voice, though the several decade age difference between them is at best problematic. Downey CLO perennial Ann Peck McBride is a warm and feisty Nettie, and her husky soprano fits the character to a T. (Nettie gets arguably the show’s most famous number, the inspiring “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”)  Michael McGreal nicely channels Leslie Jordan for a sweet comedic turn as Heavenly Helper (his job, not his name), Valerie Jasso plays a nicely rounded Mrs. Mullins, and William Crisp is suitably pompous in his effective turn as Mr. Bascomb. A warm and witty Ed Krieger makes the most of his cameo appearance as the Starkeeper and lookalike Dr. Seldon.

The huge, vocally strong ensemble (Anne Arreguin, Raul Avina, Aldo Benalcazar, Harriet Bennish, Claire Bowen, Amanda Brown, Patrick Burns, Katie Coffey, Jeffrey D. Collier, Devin Cornair, Shannon Cudd (Rose), Christopher Curry, Chase Dowe, Carlos Ferrusca, Greg Hardash (Samuel), Kayla Hart, Perry V. Hayes, Adam Huynh, Lindsey Kelly, Nicole Manly (Emma), Alessha McNeff, Sarah Melvin, Thomas Milne, Fiona Okida, Francesca Palermo, Anna Park, Bridget Pugliese, Randle Rankin (Joseph), Allison Reyes, Karen Richter, Jenna Romano, Branden Lee Roth, Derek Rubiano (Policeman), Carrie Theodossin, Amanda Valli, Dee Wilson, and Frances Wulke) are a blend of aspiring musical theater performers, kids, and community theater enthusiasts. Choreographer Renslow has tailored Carousel’s dance numbers (originally choreographed by the legendary Agnes De Mille) to fit the eclectic ensemble’s varying strengths.  The best dance moments come during the extended Act Two ballet, its two stars (Denai Lovrien as Louise and Nathan Wise as Carnival Boy) both fine, trained dancers.

Musical director Eddy Clement once again conducts the Downey CLO orchestra. Costumes by Elizabeth Bowen are first-rate as is Jenny Bloom’s lighting design. A minimalist set design on the Downey Theatre’s center stage works surprisingly well, suggesting the open expanse of New England sky. The theater’s two side stages (nicely designed by Mark W. Keller) are more literal representations of Nettie’s house and the tree-lined path where Billy and Julie have their extended “first date” sequence. (Note: Since many key scenes take place on the side stage located house left, audience members seated house right, as this reviewer was, are somewhat shortchanged by having these scenes take place at considerable distance.  Since no scenes unfold on the house right side stage, ask for house left seats if possible.) Jay Lee’s sound design is excellent, save when voices hit their highest notes. Sally Casey Bell is stage manager. Gary Richardson is technical director.

With an abusive husband as its hero, Carousel can be a tough show to stage in 2010, but thanks to its two stars, its imaginative director, and the enthusiasm and commitment of its enormous cast, the Downey CLO production has ample power and charm.

Downey Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd., Downey.

–Steven Stanley
May 29, 2010

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