“Stonecutters: Cut it in stone; Woodpeckers: Peck it in wood…” there’s nothing more entertaining than “Musical Theatre West’s” exuberant new production of Rodgers And Hammerstein’s celebrated musical hit, “Carousel” currently playing at “The Carpenter Center” in Long Beach California. The third offering in their laudable 64th season, boasting the sumptuous music of Richard Rodgers and the equally enthralling lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II (who also wrote the book) “Carousel”, is the second musical by the legendary team, whose awesome score features such standards as “If I Loved You”, “What’s The Use Of Wonderin’”, “When I Marry Mr. Snow”, “June Is Busting Out All Over”, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the lovely “Carousel Waltz”. First staged in 1945, Rodgers himself widely acknowledged this as his personal favorite of all his musicals. As is their strength, MTW’s new staging is a Top-Notch re-mounting of a true-blue, honest-to-goodness classic of both Americana and Musical Theater. Small wonder that opening night’s performance was to a completely sold-out house (which has also become something of a MTW tradition.) Even smaller wonder was how at its conclusion, all the ‘first-nighters’ couldn’t jump to their feet fast enough to give this old favorite a thunderous, much-deserved standing ovation!
Once voted “the greatest musical of the twentieth century” by “TIME” magazine, “Carousel” is freely based on Hungarian Playwright, Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 play, “Liliom”; re-set in Maine, the story here however, begins in 1879 and follows charismatic Carnival Barker “Billy Bigelow” who captivates naïve mill-worker, “Julie Jordan”. In fact, those primarily familiar with this musical from its popular 1956 movie version are in for plenty of delightful surprises. This bitter-sweet, though spiritually uplifting tale unfolds as “Julie” and her best friend “Carrie” are seen running on after having been chased away from the Carousel by the attraction’s frowsy—and very jealous–owner, “Mrs., Mullin”. “Billy” follows, and is fired from his job after mocking his employer for her presumption and possessiveness over him. Distraught over what she believes happened because of her (and not discounting her intense attraction to the broodingly handsome Barker,) she agrees to go out for a drink with him—despite knowing it will probably be at the cost of her own job. “You stayed here the first time I asked you” Billy grins, once Julie resolves to stay—regardless of any potential gossip she might be subjected to. After they marry, living with (or off of) her cousin “Nettie”, harsh reality soon manifests itself as Julie finds that she’s expecting; this leads to an unthinkable tragedy when “Billy”, in a dire bid to obtain money for the baby, is involved in a failed—and fatal–robbery. Jump forward fifteen years after his sudden death, “Billy’ is granted special permission to return to Earth for one day to try to make amends to his widow and their now teenaged daughter, “Louise” whom he never knew, but who may be heading down the wrong road herself without his intervention. Once there, he learns that power of true love can persevere even beyond the most prodigious of calamities, and that if you can indeed, ‘walk on with hope in your heart, you’ll never walk alone!”
Joe Langworths’ direction stays refreshingly faithful to the Broadway original and favors a relaxed and comparably invigorating ‘naturalness’ to all the goings on—no matter how fanciful or ‘presentational’ they become. These are people one could actually know regardless of the times in which they exist. Better yet, Langworth gives equal attention to each song, dance, dramatic and comedic element, allowing a gentle affability to flourish all through the on-stage proceedings. In not forcing the pace, he ironically seems to make things go by even swifter. Likewise, omitting the film’s ‘flashback’ perspective also enables the story to unfold from beginning to end, keeping it fresh and providing the goings-on with a dynamic, ‘as its happening’ appeal, while instilling into what events do occur, an added resonance and loftier emotional impact. For instance: at the production’s big climax, he perceptively removes the ‘crowd’, leaving the moments leading up to the score’s hallmark number, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” tight, intimate, raw and near devastating in its honesty—just as it should be. Furthermore, he astutely has his cast utilize some nice, authentic, New England accents—a feature quite often absent from more mediocre versions, and in this regard, they all add enormously to the realism of the stage-work he’s creating.
The choreographic angle taken by Daniel Smith also compliments and even enhances much of Langworth’s endeavors. His style is more graceful and (at times) playful than overtly athletic (although there are times when this latter method comes into strategic play as well.) His theatrical magic is evidenced straight away–starting from the opening where even the overture is choreographed, revealing our two main characters immediately before they are destined to meet, while the baronial first notes of the “Carousel Waltz” are heard. As it builds into an all-out production number, gradually the world they are to inhabit is unveiled— with jugglers, acrobats and ballerinas, and even the titular carousel is literally constructed right before our eyes. Smith’s contribution to “The Carousel Waltz” vitally helps transforms the number into everything a good, substantial, opening should be. Yet, Smith’s smaller touches here and there also add terrific significance also, such as the brief ‘polka’ he integrates into “When The Children Are Asleep”, as Carrie tries to get her sweetheart to waltz with her, but he ‘magnifies’ it into bigger, heftier steps. Smith also adopts a more judicious approach with “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”—a winning group effort containing some nice choral work and bona-fide crowd pleaser early on, which evolves into a breezy balletic interlude full of high kicks, tendus and pirouettes performed in perfect unison.
Instead, he temporarily pre-empts the terpsichorean ‘fire-works’ until just after, saving them for the jaunty sea chanty, “Blow High, Blow Low” which showcases the men doing a first-class sailor’s “Hornpipe”—executed on crates and complete with related ‘hambone-inspired’ hand and arm gesticulations; then when the ladies join in, it gets downright acrobatic, before expanding into a blissfully grand amalgam of both a jig and waltz (and yes, these two disparate dance disciplines combine brilliantly!) Act One closes with a quick and lively reprise of “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” as the gang all head off to their (fateful for some) clam–bake. After intermission, joined by the younger members of the cast (one of whom is cleverly ‘passed’ around on the shoulders of the ensemble) their collective conferral of “This Was A Real Nice Clam-bake” is an ebullient way to launch the admittedly heavier half of the show in still another light-hearted and nuanced way that truly is “fittin’ fer an Angel’s choir’! Of course, anyone remotely acquainted with either the stage or screen versions of “Carousel” is likely to recall the magnificent ballet that serves as the centerpiece of Act Two, and in keeping with the overall tone of the rest of the show, here it is incorporated smoothly and seamlessly–and is decidedly worth waiting for. It all leads to an exhilarative finale consisting of an almost reverential reprise of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sung by the entire company!
Doug Carpenter and Amanda Leigh Jerry star as the ‘star-crossed’ “Billy Bigelow” and “Julie Jordan” respectively. Both are well matched with legitimately spectacular voices—his, a rich baritone with a subtle tremolo; hers, a lavish lyric soprano–and their dramatic talents are each exceptional as well. This latter skill is particularly important for these two roles because, unlike so many of your standard ‘musical comedy’ characters from Broadway’s “Golden Age”, so much more is required of them. Happily, neither performer disappoints, and both frequently dazzle over the course of the show. Ostensibly the main’ protagonist of this saga, Carpenter invests “Billy” with less bite, more pathos (—think along the lines of a misguided, misjudged rogue than anyone really menacing,) while exhibiting a brand of smoldering magnetism and sex appeal reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando circa his “Street Car Named Desire” days. Yes, his gift for suffusing Hammerstein’s lyrics with depth and life is also abundant, and he continually validates this–scoring colossally each time he does. His introductory duet opposite Ms. Jerry, the iconic “If I Loved You” is an awe-inspiring triumph for them both (let alone for the audience!)
She first sings her verses—sublimely; and he counters every bit as splendidly. As for “Billy’s” big First Act musical “Soliloquy”, which many have described as among the most significant musicalized sequences of its kind in this or any other musical production, Carpenter sagaciously keeps the initial “My Boy Bill” verses more brash and buoyant, while softening them for the “My Little Girl” section, wherein he then interjects a softer, somewhat more dreamy quality. This gives stronger reverberation to the strong emotions that are driving each section. By the songs’ end though, he practically raises the roof with its ultimate, desperate declaration which positively detonates throughout “The Carpenter Center’s” vast 1,074 seat auditorium. Right up there with him is Ms. Jerry as “Julie”. Winsome but never weak—and certainly at no time overshadowed by anyone, she charms right from her opening notes of “Never Gonna Marry”—a quick and dandy little preamble to her exemplary singing talents, before showcasing them more comprehensively with her verses of “If I loved You”. Subsequently, her second act chanson, “What’s The Use Of Wonderin’” (as Julie attempts to console “Carrie” after her comrade has a spat with her own intended,) is infused with an exquisite aura of wistfulness, so much so that we can’t help but commiserate with both ladies.
Amanda Hootman also puts the “super” in ‘superlative job’ as Julie’s best gal-pal, “Carrie Pipperidge”. Not only does she too, have an incredible voice, but she can also lay claim to considerable comic chops to boot. As for the former talent, she proves this right off with “You’re A Queer One, Julie Jordan” which constitutes a lead-in for her more pristine and altogether pleasing, “When I Marry Mr. Snow”. She also excels with her part in “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”; then, together with Justin Cowden as her ‘intended’ (and later, husband) “Enoch Snow” they make “When The Children Are Asleep” a genuine First Act Highlight—and, were there any, both wonderfully remove any doubt that they are two vocal forces to be reckoned with here! As “Enoch”, Crowden has a rich, full voice which he loses no time demonstrating with his preliminary stanzas as part of the reprise of “When I Marry Mr. Snow”. Immediately after, as he ‘sings’ his plans for his and Carrie’s future in “When The Children Are Asleep”, this in itself is worthy of a full ovation! “He don’t say much, but what he says is awful pithy” Carrie notes of her ‘hubby-to-be’. This operatic ‘larger than life’ take he manifests in his character is also very effective—especially when taking into account ‘who’ “Enoch” becomes and his puffed-up attitudes later in the story. He also shines with the melodramatic “Geraniums In The Winder” during which “Enoch”, thinking that “the hapless “Carrie” is on the verge of betraying him, ‘pines’ for the ‘happy home’ he feels (possibly) cheated of: “Geraniums in the winder; Hydrangeas on the lawn, and breakfast in the kitchen In the timid pink of dawn. And you to blow me kisses when I’m headin’ for the sea–We might have been a happy pair of lovers, mightn’t have we?” he croons; the more morosely and over-the-top he sings it, the funnier it gets.
Jeff Skowron also does a stand-up, stand-out job as the local lowlife “Jigger Craigen”. A recognizable and well-respected figure on the “Carpenter Center” stage, Skowron lends his own laudable singing abilities initiating the rousing “Stone Cutters Cut It On Stone” (which the ladies also quickly reprise.) As with the rest of the production, Skowron’s sheer insincerity is ingeniously unforced—your everyday, garden variety scoundrel (even to his friends!) He also gets all the very best gag lines, and Skowron dryly delivers each one with aplomb: “Put on a fresh coat of paint—you’re startin’ to peel, you old ‘pleasure boat’” he snipes at “Mrs. Mullin” at one point, before describing to “Carrie”, “For you, I would swim through beer with my mouth closed.” Taking on the “Rodgers And Hammerstein” ‘trademark’ role of the slightly older, worldly and wise woman, is Sarah Uriarte-Berry as Julie’s “Cousin Nettie”, who takes the couple in once their fortunes begin to turn sour. Ms. Uriarte-Berry is nothing short of stupendous and supplies some vocal pyrotechnics of her own—first, leading the jubilant “June Is Busting Out All Over”;
then, her rendition of the show’s emblematic anthem of hope, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is stunningly beautiful—not overpowering (as might be feared in a lesser singer-actress) but with an artful air of restraint that makes it all the more resonant and golden (–not to mention tear-inducing!)
As “Julie” and “Billy’s” daughter “Louise”, Allyson San Roman is appropriately fresh-faced, wide-eyed, and demure—and oh, what a dancer she is! Her scenes may be limited to the latter half of the second act, but she more than makes her mark with the striking second act “ballet”—bestowing on us the kind of lithe freedom of movement a fledgling Isadora Duncan might employ. Joining her is Eddie Gutierrez as the “Carnival Boy”, and while his moments in the spotlight are also relatively brief, they certainly are unforgettable. He too, helps make this interval the show’s crowning glory where its dance maneuvers are concerned. (Just don’t be surprised if your breath is taken clear away while watching the elegant and complex moves this duo astound with their stirring Pas-de-Deux.)
Centered around a nifty giant turntable, the rustic sets, picturesque drops and vibrant lighting projections (of which there are numerous) effectively set the stage, recalling a simpler and slightly more rough-hewn time and place. Similarly, in a production of this nature, the lighting effects take on an added importance where several key scenes suggest a carnival like atmosphere, or contrast against a quieter, moodier feel for others. Happily, Lighting Designer Paul Black’s choices never disappoint–aiding immensely in the concoction of this modern morality tale, whether they be through vivid light projections across the sets, backdrops or stage floor, or the glowing white incandescence which “Billy” and “Julie” are at turns delicately bathed in after the rest of the stage and follow spot fades, such as after their very first kiss. In addition, when “Billy” heads “up there” to meet his ‘Maker’, the stars themselves are a true visionary effect—immersing the back scrim in a multitude of winking white and blue sparkles! Moreover, Karen St. Pierre’s costume designs are bright, colorful, and germane to period (and caste)—and her dresses specifically are extra ‘flouncy’ for those many vivacious dance motions. Not to be marginalized either is the momentous contribution made by Musical Director, Dennis Castellano who deftly presides over the stately 28 piece orchestra!
No ‘Ifs’ about it—you’ll definitely love catching a rollicking, romantic ride on this “Carousel”! After “Previewing” on Friday, March 24th, “Carousel” officially opened on Saturday evening, March 25th, where it is slated to play through Sunday, April 9th at the “Carpenter Performing Arts Center” located on the campus of California State University Long Beach, 6200 E. Atherton, in Long Beach, California. Showtimes are Friday evenings at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 2:00 PM. There will be an added evening on Sunday, April 2nd at 6:00 PM and Thursday evening, April 6th, at 8:00 PM; In addition, the performance on Friday evening April 7th will include ASL interpretation for deaf or hard of hearing viewers. Tickets are available at the “Musical Theatre West” Ticket Office, located at 4350 E. 7th Street in Long Beach, on-line by visiting www.musical.org, or by calling (562) 856-1999, ext. 4.
Production stills by “Caught In The Moment Photography”, Long Beach CA. (www.caughtinthemoment.com ) Courtesy of “Musical Theatre West”; Special Thanks to Paul Garman, Lori Yonan, Joe Langworth, Daniel Smith, Dennis Castellano, and to the cast and crew of “Musical Theatre West’s” “Carousel” for making this story possible.