Life happens. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s, Carousel, is a timeless interlude that explores the human spirit’s indomitable will to go forward no matter life’s circumstances. Director Molly Smith’s revival of Carousel, currently playing at Arena Stage, is also a hopeful sojourn that lifts the human experience to heavenly heights through intoxicatingly rich theatrical artistry, music, movement, and pure entertainment.
A Broadway smash hit that premiered in 1945, Carousel tells the tale of a carnival barker, the rakish Billy Bigelow, who falls in love with millworker Julie Jordan only to have both of them lose their jobs when they bite the hands that feed them: Billy insults the overbearing owner of the Carousel, Mrs. Mullins (the jealous, strong willed powerhouse, E. Faye Butler) and Julie ignores the wealthy Mr. Bascombe (starchily played by Thomas Adrian Simpson) and his wife’s (sweet natured Rayanne Gonzales) house rules where Julie boards as his employee at the local mill.
Julie and Billy marry but he makes unwise choices that lead to tragedy when Billy decides to commit a robbery to make ends meet after Julie tells him that she is pregnant. A secondary story line is the relationship between the impetuous Carrie Pipperidge (Kate Rockwell) and ambitious fisherman Enoch Snow (Kurt Boehm) who are engaged to marry. Carrie is Julie’s good friend and together with the men in their lives, they share their ups and downs on the carousel of life and death.
On a simple set of whitewashed wood (Set Designer Todd Rosenthal), the prologue’s instrumental ballet, “The Carousel Waltz,” opens the story from Julie’s perspective. The strength of the acting and singing in Carousel do not rely upon an elaborate set as Rosenthal’s minimalist depiction of a seaside dock is sufficient to provide ample backdrop for a big cast of superb performers.
Rosenthal creatively solved the design problem of what to do with a 12 piece musical ensemble by seating the strings and horns in an overhead platform complete with whitewashed gangplanks that set the stage for the purgatory scene of the show. Musical Director Paul Sportelli held the baton with direction from the rhythm section below at orchestra pit level of the Fichandler Stage.
The monotony of Julie Jordan’s life in the factory has a joyously bright spot at the end of a hard day’s work when she can go to the Carousel. There she meets Billy Bigelow and in a long loving gaze when they first encounter each other, Billy and Julie fall in love while evading their true feelings in the classic song, “If I Loved You.” Veteran Broadway actress Betsy Morgan, a beautiful soprano, portrays Julie as a somewhat stoical lover who, like air is to fire, provides respiration for the hot-blooded Billy Bigelow played with passionate combustion by the stupendous Nicholas Rodgriquez.
With music by Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, this dynamic duo’s collaboration created many memorable songs like “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” was another one of them. Sung by Carrie (the delightfully perky Kate Rockwell) and a large chorus ensemble (Gracie Jones, Danielle Sue Jordan, Ethan Kasnett, Emma Sophie Moore, Tony Neidenbach, Bridget Riley, Paul Scanlan, Jessica Wu, Phil Young, Katie Arthur, Jay Westin, and Isabella Brody), the fisherman wharf culture of Maine in 1873 came fully alive in this timeless classic as the company sang and danced in anticipation of the annual clambake.
Period costumes by Ilona Somogyi are linen crispy with that faded shore look to match the whitewashed seaside feeling of the dock setting.
Carrie and Enoch’s romance unfolds through “Mister Snow “as Carrie rejoices about her upcoming nuptials and Enoch celebrates their wonderfully large family-to-be with “When the Children are Asleep. There’s great chemistry between these two characters with Carrie’s ingénue charm and Enoch’s innocent eagerness wonderfully portrayed by Kurt Boehm.
Jigger Craigin, the villain character of the story, (performed with sleazy sex appeal and a slick Irish accent by Kyle Schliefer) and the men of the wharf sing and dance on “Blow High, Bow Low” after a hard day of fishing to earn a living. Well-known local actor Stephawn Stephens gives a strong performance as Captain and is a wonderful addition to the cast.
Nicholas Rodriguez fully embodies his character in a larger-than-life performance as Billy Bigelow and delivers a show stopping performance on “Soliloquy” as he expresses his emotional feelings about becoming a father for the first time, in climax before the Finale of Act I.
Parker Esse’s choreography displays movement that is as lyrical and fluid as it is air tight in precision and athleticism. He uses the challenge of dancing through the spherical space of the Fichandler to best advantage by fully filling the room to its curved edges with exuberant turns and joyous high jumps.
As Act II unfolds we see Nettie Fowler, Julie’s cousin and the owner of a seaside spa, (played with Earth Mother love by Ann Arvia) Julie, Carrie, Enoch and chorus celebrating “A Real Nice Clambake”, the long-awaited community shin-dig and the alibi setting for Billy Bigelow’s robbery attempt. Under Music Director Paul Sportelli, with a score written to accommodate the more intimate 12-member ensemble than the full Broadway orchestra complement, the musical delights of “Geraniums in the Winder,” “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” develop the story line and characters motivations for the second act.
Without my giving away the whole story line, Louise, the daughter that Billy never got to see in life becomes part of his life through the after-life. Billy reenters the lives of this seaside community when he is given a second chance and returns to earth to do good so he can finally enter heaven. He chooses to give his daughter a star given to him in heaven by the Starkeeper (Joshua Otten) guided by a Heavenly Friend (Nicole Wildy). When Louise rejects the star that Billy wants to gift her, he slaps her hand. The theme of domestic violence and spousal abuse was a theme that was ahead of its time in Carousel as Billy used to slap Julie around during particularly tense times in their marriage. It is a serious problem that we are still dealing with today.
Skye Mattox as Louise Bigelow develops her character largely through dance, and her magnificent adagio solo is emotionally moving. Louise is feisty, self-assured and hopeful as the rejected young girl whose father is scorned by the community as a thief and wife beater. She dances with wild abandon even through pain inflicted by childhood friends, and Louise has not escaped her issues with abandonment, however, and an abusive relationship with her Carnival Boy lover (Michael Graceffa) is part of Louise’s ongoing quest to be free and to go forward with her life.
Carousel ponders life and death, forgiveness and redemption, class divisions and everyman’s desperate daily struggle to find meaning. It gives hope to the possibility of second chances and optimism toward the future.
Carousel delights while pondering the merry-go-round of life. Take the extraordinary ride at Arena Stage’s magnificent Carousel.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.