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‘Carousel’ at Live Arts Maryland

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The version of Carousel, with Music by Richard Rodgers and Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, presented in the recently renovated theater of Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis by Live Arts Maryland, is not so much a full production of a musical as it is a performance of the rich, lush sounds of the Annapolis Chorale and Annapolis Chamber Orchestra, directed by Courtney Kalbacker, and Musical Directed by J. Ernest Green.

Dress rehearsal with Jason Buckwalter and Erik Alexis and Jason Buckwalter. Photo courtesy of Live Arts Maryland.

Dress rehearsal with Jason Buckwalter (Billy Bigelow) and Erik Alexis (Jigger Craigin). Photo courtesy of Live Arts Maryland.

The singer-actors who performed at the front of the stage were the icing on the very full and tasty cake. Unlike most musicals where the orchestra is in “the pit” a lowered area below the front of the stage, the 28-piece orchestra performed onstage, taking up the center portion. In the rear, on tiered stands, were the magnificent voices belonging to approximately half of Annapolis Chorale’s 160 members. Green conducted both groups from a small raised platform.

Though the show’s characters were in costume, the play was performed without sets and with minimal props: a bench, two chairs and one palm-sized star.

The stage, itself, was making a debut. The ceiling of the “shell” surrounding the band on three sides and above had just been installed. The Chorale and Orchestra were performing beneath it for the first time during Friday night’s performance.

The members of both the Annapolis Chorale and Annapolis Chamber Orchestra are volunteers. After passing an audition, they pay a small annual membership fee and also purchase their music. Many members of both groups – a diverse mix of teens, young adults, midlifers, and seniors, have been involved for years –  some for more than three decades.

The sound the two groups created was gorgeous, professional, and filled the space. It was akin to listening to a rainbow: soaring, elegant, colorful and breathtaking. Occasionally, their volume drowned out the actors in front, possibly a result of the new acoustics.

Now, onto the show.

Carousel has an interesting history, coming, in wartime 1945, on the heels of Rogers & Hammerstein’s hugely successful 1943 production,“Oklahoma”.

It was adapted from a 1909 play by Ferenc Molnar set in Budapest, Hungary. For the musical, the site was changed to the Maine coastline, and the ending adjusted to transform a tragedy into an uplifting message of hope.

There was a brief prelude to the show during which Green announced performances on Live Arts Maryland’s 2015 – 2016 season schedule. A supporter who’d successfully bid for the opportunity then led the cast and audience in singing “Star Spangled Banner” as he directed from Green’s conductor stand.

The Chorale and Orchestra were dressed, for the performance, in “black on black” – black shirts and trousers or skirts.

And, like the Chorale, the talented cast’s voices soared.

Billy Bigelow, the central character, drunkenly staggered out onto the stage and promptly passed out. He was played by baritone Jason Buckwalter, Billy  is a cad. He is the barker for a carousel operated by the widow Mrs. Mullin (Alicia Sweeney). His sexual energy is what helps sell the rides on the carousel to the local female millworkers. Mullin doesn’t like that his energy is directed at others, not at her. The women work long hours and are required to live in a dormlike setting. Violating curfews or other rules can lead to immediate dismissal.

His rapidly burgeoning romance with Julie Jordan (soprano Jessica Satava) costs him his job. Later, when her boss spots her and offers to escort her to her lodgings so she won’t violate curfew, she rebuffs him – and loses her job, too.

There is a second plot: the romance between  Julie Jordan’s friend Carrie Pipperidge (soprano Kimberly Christie) and Enoch Snow (tenor J. Austin Bitner) moves rapidly.

Against a backdrop of songs – “When I Marry (Mister Snow) with Pipperidge and Snow, and “If I Loved You” with Bigelow and Jordan – both relationships develop quickly.

Molly Moore Green (Nettie Fowler). Photo courtesy of Live Arts Maryland.

Molly Moore Green (Nettie Fowler). Photo courtesy of Live Arts Maryland.

The women’s friend Nettie Fowler (Molly Moore Green) leads the Chorale and cast members in a rousing “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.” and later, at the end of the show, Green delivers a heart-wrenching “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” All these classic songs were sung with heart and some produced gorgeous harmonies.

A month later, the still unemployed Bigelow and Jordan are married, as are Pipperidge and Snow. Piperidge learns Snow has plans for a big family in the heartwarming “When the Children Are Asleep.”

Bigelow, angered by his lack of employment opportunities, has taken it out on his wife. During an argument, he hit her. She brushes the incident off in discussions with others, but the news spreads through the town.

Meanwhile, the townspeople are planning their annual clambake on a nearby island. Bigelow had rudely informed Jordan he has no plans to attend. In a meeting with an acquaintance, the lowlife sailor Jigger Craigin (Erik Alexis), Craigin attempts to involve Bigelow in a robbery for a “lot of money.”

Bigelow, at first, brushes him off as the robbery would involve violence. When he learns Julie is pregnant with their child, he changes his mind during “Soliloquy.” And what a tour de force performance Jason Buckwalter delivered! During this song, he also realizes he will have to take responsibility for being a father to his child. He decides to attend the clambake to provide an alibi for the robbery.

I was so impressed by 8th grader Gracie Albus (as Louise Bigelow) who performed a psychologically intriguing barefoot ballet as Bigelow’s 15-year old daughter in which she fends off bullies while expressing her embittered loneliness as a societal outcast. This was an impressive feat performed within the narrow parameters of the front stage.

There is one more performance tonight at 8 PM, so if you are free run and buy tickets.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, presented by Live Arts Maryland, has one remaining performance TONIGHT, Saturday, October 10, 2015 at 8 PM at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts – 801 Chase Street, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call (410) 280-5640, or purchase them online. 

For more information on Live Arts Maryland, call (410) 263-1906, or visit their website.

RATING: FOUR-AND-A-HALF-STARS7.gif

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