The jewel in Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s crown doesn’t need any tinkering or apologies. All it needs is the treatment it’s getting right now at Arena Stage. Set in the four-sided Fichandler space, Todd Rosenthal’s simple, whitewashed plank stage evokes a small town band gazebo in early 1900s New England. Its second tier, suspended high above us, houses half of the live orchestra and hosts the second act “heaven” scene. Rich simplicity and virtuoso performances on all levels carry this production.
Time Magazine had its own reasons for naming “Carousel” the “Musical of the Century,” but that choice would be hard to surpass on the merits of musical score, characters, and a dramatic narrative weaving of dark and light.
This is the musical that almost didn’t get written, as it was based on Ferenc Molnar’s drama “Liliom” and he had consistently refused to allow adaptations. Only after he saw what Messrs R & H had done with “Oklahoma” did he relent, trusting that his story would get the handling it deserved. Opening in April, 1945, “Carousel” was a resounding hit and ran simultaneously – and across the street – from “Oklahoma” on Broadway.
Of course a few adjustments to the story were in order. Julie Jordan, a mill worker, falls in love with Billy Bigelow, a carnival barker of dubious reputation. He’s violent and impulsive and not a nice fellow. Unlike Molnar, however, R & H made him marry the girl. Julie becomes pregnant, and in a rash attempt to get money, Billy joins one of his desperado friends in a failed robbery that ends with his own suicide. But death doesn’t end the story. Where Molnar had him languishing in Purgatory, R & H allowed him to just squeak into Heaven. But not without a little soul searching first.
Director Molly Smith has wisely let the material speak for itself while gifting it with a stunning cast and technical crew. Her vision, both simple and direct, incorporates Thornton Wilder- inspired miming and Parker Esse’s Agnes De Mille-inspired high octane choreography.
Nicolas Rodriguez is flawless as our anti-hero, Billy Bigelow. He’s handsome and dangerous – tempting bait for naïve young girls. Julie Jordan (Betsy Morgan) is naïve, but reckless enough to ignore the red flags flapping in the wind. Their chemistry together is a visual steam bath, and their voices! Together and separately in songs such as “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are simply mesmerizing. Whatever Billy’s flaws, we find him easy to forgive in the beautiful “Soliloquy.”
And then there’s the issue of wife-abuse. Bad enough on a 1940s stage, it’s even harder to address now – especially when Julie makes excuses and the girls join her in “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” But we don’t get any lectures, and, well, he only hit her once. She said.
“Carousel” delivers an up for every down, and balances darkness with redemption. While Julie is pursuing her bleak future with Billy, Carrie Pipperidge (Kate Rockwell) is giggling about her engagement to Enoch Snow (Kurt Boehm). When I marry “Mr. Snow” shows off her lilting soprano. Unlike Billy, he has ambition and a legitimate future. He’s also jealous in a petulant but, thankfully, non-violent way. Their sublime duet in “When the Children are Asleep” is as charming as it gets.
One character who rocks the stage with every entrance is the human battleship, Mrs. Mullin, played with knock-out presence by E. Faye Butler. She’s fallen for Billy like everyone else, and uses hiring and firing him on the carousel as leverage. Glittering like an artificial ruby, she adds spice to the pink and white stew of innocent mill girls. And she hates Julie. Positioned opposite her is the comforting mother figure, Nettie Fowler (Ann Arvia) who leads the chorus in “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” and comforts Julie after Billy’s death, as only a good friend can, by telling her she’s better off.
Ensemble performances leap with the hormonally drenched energy of “Blow High, Blow Low” and “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone” and then relax with the full-belly lounging on the beach in “A Real Nice Clambake” – (This R & H stepchild was pulled from “Oklahoma” where it was “A Real Nice Hayride.”)
For dastardly curs, give me Kyle Schliefer as Jigger Craigin, Billy’s degenerate friend. Jigger is so smooth, so intense and conniving even in the humorous sketch with Carrie, that he almost leaves slug trails. Even Billy can’t resist his larcenous plan.
When 15 earth years magically pass, Billy sees his daughter, Louise, for the first time as she performs her life-defining dance on the beach. Kudos to Skye Mattox for this extraordinary slice of interpretive ballet.
Ilona Somogyi’s beach tinted costumes in modest, turn-of-the century lines complement the white-plank set and suggest the shoreline that’s just out of view. Washed in Keith Parham’s lighting and touched with Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli’s sound design, “Carousel” lives up to its reputation as perhaps the greatest of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
Where: Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St. SW
Call: (202) 488-3300 or visit arenastage.org
Playing through Dec. 24