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A Spin Around Rodgers and Hammerstein

Arena Stage
12/17/2016 -  (runs daily from October 28 to December 24, 2016, Mondays excepted, with matinee performances on Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays)
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, II: Carousel
Kate Rockwell (Carrie Pipperidge), Betsy Morgan (Julie Jordan), E. Faye Butler (Mrs. Mullin), Nicholas Rodriguez (Billy Bigelow), Thomas Adrian Simpson (David Bascombe), Ann Arvia (Nettie Fowler), Kurt Boehm (Enoch Snow), Kyle Schliefer (Jigger Craigin), Stephawn Stephens (Captains), Nicole Wildy (Heavenly Friend), Joshua Otten (Starkeeper), Skye Mattox (Louise Bigelow), Michael Graceffa (Carnival Boy), Jacob Beasley (Enoch Snow, Jr.), Rayanne Gonzales (Mrs. Bascombe)
Paul Sportelli (conductor)
Molly Smith (director), Todd Rosenthal (sets), Ilona Somogyi (costumes), Keith Parham (lights), Parker Esse (choreography)

(© Maria Baranova)

In age where opera companies are almost aggressively appropriating the great tradition of the American musical for stage productions, it is almost quaint to see a venerable regional theatrical company present a musical as a musical. In the capable hands of director Molly Smith, who is approaching two decades as the theater’s artistic director, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel retains its stature as arguably the greatest work in its genre. In a twenty-first century fraught with peril, Carousel returns us to a more innocent time, a wholesome twentieth century New England. The story is strikingly simple. Julie, a factory worker, is enchanted by the handsome but troubled Billy, whose current job is to drum up business for a small town’s carousel ride as a “barker.” His flirtatious ways are too much for his boss Mrs. Mullins, who fires him when he takes too close an interest in Julie. Left alone, the two immediately fall in love. Their marriage is soon blessed by a daughter, Louise, but Billy’s bad temper and lack of work conspire to create insurmountable tensions. Seduced into evil by a dockworker and his overpowering need to provide for his family, Billy joins him in a plot to murder Julie’s former boss to steal money he owes to a ship’s captain. The ambush goes awry and Billy can only avoid arrest and prison by stabbing himself. As his spirit passes into the afterlife, a “heavenly friend” allows him the chance to visit earth to check up on his daughter and witness her high school graduation, a moment of parental pride that allows him to rest in peace.

Arena’s stage is an octagonal platform surrounded on all sides by seats with a raised platform for musicians resting above the stage. Sometimes the view of other audience member is distracting, but the imagination was fully engaged by Todd Rosenthal’s bare sets. Most of the props – the carousel itself, Billy’s knife, the food, a deck of cards, and the like – are mimed by action and motion. The stage suggests the weathered wood of a New England boardwalk or gazebo. Ilona Somogyi’s costumes captured the turn-of-the-last-century wholesomeness before yielding in the final scenes to the fashions of the 1920s, by which time Louise has grown up. The approach is a simple one, but far from ineffective.

Arena’s roster of players did a fine job, though the non-rhotic accents of the New England townspeople and of Billy, an outsider from New York, lacked consistency. Given the universality of the musical’s themes, it might have been just as well to leave them out altogether. Nicholas Rodriguez’s Billy sounded almost a little too pleasant to deliver his abrasive character flaws. His lyric tenor resonated well enough (helped by a microphone), but the part seems better suited to a baritone. Still, his acting was captivating and grounded in the best traditions of American musical theater. Betsy Morgan’s Julie came across as rather more plain, but nevertheless delivered the part with arresting pathos. Kate Rockwell was superbly equipped for the role of Julie’s best friend Carrie. The accomplished and voluble E. Faye Butler came close to stealing the show as Mrs. Mullin, pealing off cackles of laughter while exiting to news of Billy’s impending fatherhood. Among the ensemble cast, Kurt Boehm cut a solid figure as the earnest Enoch Snow. Kyle Schlieffer gave a devilish portrayal of Jigger Craigin, the dockworker who lures Billy into crime. And Skye Mattox acted and danced divinely as Louise. Now approaching the end of a critically acclaimed run, Carousel should move Arena toward a greater embrace of musical theater.

Paul du Quenoy



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