Anyone curious about why Time Magazine named Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel the 20th Century’s Best Musical need look no further than Musical Theatre West’s superb 21st-Century revival. Director Joe Langworth, choreographer Daniel Smith, and an all-around brilliant cast give us a Carousel still “fresh and alive and gay and young,” even at seventy-two years of age.
With its tale of 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), Carousel has been an audience favorite since its 1945 Broadway debut.
Based on Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom, the follow-up to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! transports us to a seaside Maine town circa 1873, where young girls toil long hours in the local mill before escaping each night to stand in line for their turn on the town’s merry-go-round, if only to be near Billy Bigelow (Doug Carpenter).
Though there’s hardly a girl in town not smitten with the carousel’s handsome, sexy barker, it’s clear from the start that Billy only has eyes for the beautiful Julie Jordan (Amanda Leigh Jerry) and she for him, so much so that within hours of their first conversation, the couple will have both fallen in love and lost their jobs as a consequence.
It doesn’t take long for the young lovers to marry, though what follows is hardly sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows.
Carousel broke ground back in the mid-‘40s by daring to open, not with an overture but with a “Prologue” whose “Carousel Waltz” underscored an extended eight-minute dialog-free introduction to the musical’s cast of characters, a sequence that at MTW provides the first indication that director Langworth and choreographer Smith won’t be giving us any sort of Carousel by the numbers.
The duo eschew the traditional “factory girls heading off from the mill for a night at the carnival” opening to focus on Carousel’s two leads as they dress for work and for play, then introduce the musical’s major supporting characters along with the townspeople and the carnies who have drawn them out for a night of escape from their daily drudgery, and finally the carousel itself.
Every bit as revolutionary was the extended music-and-dialog sequence of Act One’s famous “bench scene,” staged and performed here with all the power and depth it deserves.
As for the seven extraordinary minutes of Billy’s thematically and musically complex “Soliloquy,” Carpenter’s performance cements his status as one of L.A. musical theater’s most gifted discoveries.
Finally, there’s the justly famed Act Two “Ballet” during which we see through the medium of dance what it feels like to be the teenage child of a father with the reputation of being a wife-beating bum, and here too Smith’s entirely original choreography makes us feel that we’re seeing this iconic sequence for the very first time.
In roles that bring one performer back from Broadway and another freshly arrived from Carnegie Mellon, Carpenter and Jerry go beyond mere glorious vocals to give us a man tormented by feelings of inadequacy and an equally complex young woman who makes us, if not excuse, then at least understand how Julie can say, “It’s possible for someone to hit you hard hard, and it not hurt you at all.”
As Julie’s best friend Carrie, Amanda Hootman proves not only a terrific comedienne, her soprano matches Jerry’s in sheer gloriousness; Sarah Uriarte Berry gives Julie’s businesswoman cousin Nettie youthful beauty and a Broadway mezzo that makes “You’ll Never Walk Alone” every bit the tear-inducing showstopper it was written to be; and the always inspired Jeff Skowron’s twisted Jigger merits equal parts chuckles and jeers.
Kevin McMahon’s small-town folksy Starkeeper and Dr. Seldon, Justin Cowden’s deliciously square Enoch Snow, Erica Hanrahan-Ball’s still desirable (if not desired) Mrs. Mullin, Sean Smith’s suitably stern David Bascombe, and Kelly Dorney’s witty Heavenly Friend are all winners as well.
As for Allyson San Roman and Eddie Gutierrez, the dance duo dazzle as Louise and the Carnival Boy whose eye she catches.
Ensemble members Joseph Abrego, Danielle Airey, Joven Calloway, Cedric Dodd, Chaz Feuerstine, dance captain Marisa Field, Veronica Guiterrez, Shaina Hammer, Jenny Hoffman, Gabriel Kalomas, Jenny McGlinchey, Jonathan Murrietta (Enoch Snow Jr.), Adrian Mustain, Jamie Pierce, Veronica Russell, Sergio Salinas, Alex Sanchez, and Nikki Spies display talent in abundance, and child performers Amelia Fischer, Savannah Fischer, Juliet Garbacz, Matthew Garbacz, and Annabelle Giambone are charmers.
Carousel looks stunning on a set for which no designer receives credit, but one whose panoramic backdrops and simple but stylish set pieces allow Karen St. Pierre’s costumes (provided by The Theater Company), Anthony Gagliardi’s wigs, and Natalie Jackson’s properties to shine under Paul Black’s striking lighting design, and the production sounds as splendid as it looks thanks to Dennis Castellano’s impeccable musical direction and Audio Production Geeks LLC’s crystal-clear sound design.
Katharine McDonough is assistant director. Shawn Pryby is stage manager and Mary Ritenhour is assistant stage manager. Kevin Clowes is technical director.
It’s been a good long while since L.A. has seen a major Carousel revival and a whole lot longer since we’ve had one as magnificent as Musical Theatre West’s. If Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel isn’t the 20th Century’s Best Musical, then as evidenced here, it comes pretty darned close.
Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
March 25, 2017
Photos: Caught in the Moment Photography