Theater

Carousel, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Barrington Stage Company

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Aaron Ramey and Patricia Noonan in Carousel
Aaron Ramey and Patricia Noonan in Carousel

June 17, 2009 – July 11, 2009

Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on Ferenc Molnar’s Play, Liliom
As adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer
Original Dances by Agnes de Mille
Musical Direction by Darren Cohen
Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Directed by Julianne Boyd

Cast:
Aaron Ramey – Billy Bigelow
Patricia Noonan – Julie Jordan
Todd Buonopane – Mr. Snow
Sara Jean Ford – Carrie Pipperidge
Christopher Innvar – Jigger
Edmund Bagnell – 2nd Heavenly Friend/Enoch Snow Jr.
Leslie Becker – Mrs. Mullin
Daniel Marcus – Dr. Selden/Captain/Starkeeper
Kristen Paulicelli – Louise
Teri Ralston – Nettie Fowler
Todd Thurston – Mr. Bascome

Julie Boyd appears to have perfect pitch when it comes to revivals of Broadway successes of the earlier twentieth century. Last summer, Private Lives couldn’t have been funnier or more engaging. It was very much Broadway Coward rather than West End Coward, but one is as true to his cosmopolitan spirit as the other. Now she has opened the BSC season with a winning production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel (1945). The musical held its audience for many years through the 1950’s in several important revivals, and it was made into the obligatory overblown and lumbering Hollywood film. It’s considered something of a classic, not only because of its addictive tunes and Downeast atmosphere, but because of its dark—but, let’s face it, candy-coated—elements, mainly Billy Bigelow’s incorrigible crookedness and violent temper, it has gained a reputation as a musical that was a cut above the rest, a “serious” musical, which inspired Nicholas Hytner’s pretentious revival in the mid-1990’s. This American classic fares much better in Julianna Boyd’s hands. She responds to it intuitively, without showing the slightest temptation to make something of it that it is not, and bringing to to life with solid theatrical values: excellent acting, singing, and dancing. Joshua Bergasse is the choreographer—bravo! Robert Mark Morgan’s set was very pleasing as well, glowing with muted warm and cold hues that responded richly to the changing lighting, designed by Scott Pinkney.

From the very beginning, it felt good to be in the theater, as two unsubtle, but rhythmically solid and enthusiastic upright pianos sounded the overture to a brilliantly choreographed and fluent pantomime and dance, culminating in a human carousel, as women rode around on the shoulders of men, who carried striped poles and carved horses’ heads. The audience loved it, and it was also easy to make it disappear once it made its effect. The quality of the dancing and movement and the meticulous coordination of complex groupings on a not uncrowded stage won me over immediately. Carousel was a great show from the start. From the first scene it was also clear that the principles were fine singers, rightly cast, who would treat the score like real music, singing in tune and in rhythm, presenting vivid, emotionally captivating impressions of their characters from the very beginning. Patricia Noonan as the love-struck factory girl who seems to know the joys and difficulties of her path without the slightest thought of turning back. Sara Jean Ford as her down-to-earth friend, Carrie Pipperidge, was especially appealing, and the precision of her singing got her numbers across just as they should. Aaron Ramey was a tall, handsome Billy Bigelow with a clumsy but forthright way approaching people without grace or favor. Billy’s a low-life, but one can immediately understand why he is so attractive to women. He too sang very well, especially in his first scenes, giving his dark, but diamond-edged baritone a touch of grit at its core, constantly reminding us of his pent-up anger.

Aaron Ramey and Christopher Innvar in Carousel
Aaron Ramey and Christopher Innvar in Carousel

The secondary roles were executed on the same impeccable level. Teri Ralston was a touching Nettie. Christopher Innvar projected all the Irish charm, hokey stage villainy, and menacing evil of Jigger most brilliantly. I couldn’t predict what side of his character would come out next. Todd Buonopane showed an impressive command of Broadway comic idiom as Mr. Snow, not neglecting the sinister elements of that good citizen’s psyche. Leslie Becker was a sympathetic but tough Mrs. Mullin. Todd Thurston played Mr. Bascombe just right: he is neither a cipher nor a caricature of a capitalist swine. Daniel Marcus played both the Starkeeper and Dr. Selden with memorable depth and sensitivity—and also the ship captain, and he was the only actor to brave the difficult Downeast accent and bring it off.

The pace was fast throughout. making the first act seem in places almost like continuous music—without the harmonic structure of real opera. I can’t say if this due to some heavy cutting of dialogue or not. Certainly nothing was lost through it. The mood was extroverted, especially in comparison with Hytner’s production, but not excessively so. A lively, but not inappropriate tempo, strong rhythm, and Noonan and Ramey’s artfully moulded phrasing kept the famous duet “If I loved you” under control and free from any mawkishness. Overall, this rhythmic drive unified the song, the dialogue, and the dances, and this easy flow among them is what makes Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals what they are. A random fragment of conversation could flow into song, and the song could be animated into dance. Ultimately this recognition of and respect for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work were the foundations of Boyd’s success, and this was such a delightful evening at the theatre that I hardly thought about its defects. What are they?

Fuhrstly…the local accent, which was for the most part perfunctory, intermittent, or non-existent. Neither the film nor the Hytner production were much better in this respect—just to grab a couple of examples from memory. The Maine setting was a brilliant and eccentric stroke of Rodgers’ in translating Molnar’s Hungarian play to North America, and one should make the most of it, as they did: Mr. Bascombe’s strict management of the mill and the roistering clambake are hardly subtle. Not every Broadway theatre-goer in the post-war years knew what a Maine accent sounded like, but enough did to make this detail important. As I mentioned, Daniel Marcus alone did a reasonably good job of it.

Secondly, it might have been nice to have a small orchestra, but the two pianos were vastly preferable to electronic keyboards and other stopgaps. In a way they suggested a rehearsal atmosphere, but there was nothing else of the rehearsal in this polished performance. The chorus was occasionally shrill and lacked that plummy quality of the original cast recordings. A few more altos? Fourth, and worst of all, amplification was excessive and unpleasant. There is no reason on earth why musical theatre has to be louder than the processional scenes of Aida at the Met. In the middle of the orchestra we were hearing most of the vocal parts through loudspeakers. If a singer turned his or her face away from the audience, there was no acoustical connection between the voice and the body. Surely these fine singers don’t need this, although I have no idea what the acoustics of that theatre are really like. A lot of it, especially the final scenes, was just too damn loud.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel
Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel

Rodgers and Hammerstein worked hard to clean up Molnar’s sinister Liliom as much as possible for American audiences, and so they redeemed Billy Bigelow. The natural anticipation of fatherhood brings on an outburst of affection for his abused wife, Julie. Brought back from the dead, he fails—which is where Molnar left things, but Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to give him a second chance. Through a community ritual, a graduation ceremony, (The first act included another communal ritual, the clambake, during which the fatal crime was done. Isn’t it their sympathy for the outsider and the outcast that make Rodgers and Hammerstein survive today?) Billy is finally able to communicate an edifying message to his wayward daughter, Louise, splendidly and movingly danced by Kristin Paulicelli. It seems her problems emerge both from genetics and from rigid societal norms. She is an outcast because of the bad moral reputation and impecuniosity he has left behind. All he has to do is make her listen to the angelic message of the local doctor. In this forthright, honest production the end seemed a bit contrived and weak. But R & H knew what sells, and who can argue with them?

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