Review: Musical Theatre West Revives Rare Musical Classic 'CAROUSEL'

Review: Musical Theatre West Revives Rare Musical Classic 'CAROUSEL'

Michael L. Quintos

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

Of all of the musicals in the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II canon, the quietly powerful yet emotionally-stirring “CAROUSEL”—the pair’s hit 1945 Broadway musical follow-up to their first collaboration, “OKLAHOMA”—still feels like a special little show more than 70 years later. While it doesn’t share the popularity or scope of the songwriting duo’s later musicals such as “THE SOUND OF MUSIC” or even “SOUTH PACIFIC,” this wonderfully layered but easily-digestible musical wins points for its extraordinary musicality, its regal dances, and for overcoming its rather controversial central plot point surrounding its main characters that stings more profoundly in the 21st century.

Personally speaking, though, “CAROUSEL” for me contains possibly my favorite musical score of any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, ranging from touchingly romantic and buoyantly giddy, to stirringly self-reflective. Whenever I have the opportunity to hear the show’s gorgeous music performed live by a full orchestra, it always feels like a heartwarming treat.

The same can certainly be felt throughout the entirety of the brand new production currently being revisited by Musical Theatre West, which in its 64-year history hasn’t mounted this particular stage classic in over 30 years. Yes, from the gloriously vibrant opening waltz right up to the hopeful, bittersweet ending, it’s easy to be swept up in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s subtle masterpiece (even the surprise interruption of a fire alarm going off during the show’s opening weekend matinee couldn’t mar the flow of the production).

Despite its age and rather old-world subject matter, “CAROUSEL” remains to be an enjoyable musical, reiterated clearly by MTW’s exceptional revival which continues through April 9 at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in Long Beach.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I freely admit that hearing "If I Loved You,” “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’,” and "You'll Never Walk Alone" still ranks among the many musical theater songs that can instantly trigger a tear or two running down my cheek. With MTW’s latest—directed by Joe Langworth in a seemingly traditional staging of the musical—the feat has been repeated by my tear ducts, thanks to the beautiful, emotionally heartfelt performances of the show’s cast and the beautiful, lush sounds produced by the production’s multi-piece orchestra under the direction of Dennis Castellano. The music is so darn good that even in the few scattered moments when cast and band weren’t completely in-sync, it is still pretty enjoyable.

As sweeping, romantic and utterly memorable “CAROUSEL” is, the sometimes melancholy, sometimes comedic (though with some foreboding undercurrents) musical also involves a melodramatic story detail that many audiences could still find objectionable—perhaps even more so in today’s highly-charged political environment.

It is perhaps one of the main reasons why the show is rarely produced for the stage. Other than regional productions and several high-profile staged concerts, the last fully-mounted Broadway stage revival of the musical was the Tony Award-winning 1994 Lincoln Center production. Beyond the stage, a beautiful, under-appreciated 1956 film version of the musical starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones even manages to tell the same story for a larger audience.

And what is this objectionable aspect of the story? For those new to the material, the musical—based on Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play “Lilliom”—asks its audience to like (and, basically, forgive) an extremely flawed, hot-tempered main character that is pretty much, for lack of a better term, a wife beater. Yes, handsome carousel barker Billy Bigelow is a charmer, but also has a history of hitting women when he’s exceptionally angry. Even worse, he also has a history of being excused for such behavior due to his apparent hard life. I sound a bit miffed at the character, and, of course, I am. There’s never a good excuse to hit a woman, let alone a very nice one that’s just trying to make things all seem okay.

On the surface, the character of Billy is, well, an asshole. He spends most of the musical giving his behavior excuse after excuse. But through romantic song verses and sung-declarations of wanting to be a good first-time dad, the audience—and Billy’s wife, for that matter—is essentially nudged to forgive and (somewhat) forget.

Making things even more complicated: the beaten wife in question excuses her husband’s violent abuse, even going so far as to say that the hitting is more of a love tap and that the hitting comes just because Billy is frustrated with his lot in life, which therefore requires compassion not admonishing. Domestic violence has, of course, been seen in countless dramas in every medium, but to think that this is brought up in a musical made in the 1940’s is groundbreaking to say the least, particularly in its subtle dismissal of the act. Then again, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals haven’t exactly shied away from tough subjects that start dialogues and debates by confronting the frailties of the human experience, from racism to sexism.

Be that as it may, this layered, complex love story still does make for far more interesting storytelling, automatically elevating the musical above your average, run-of-the-mill boy-meets-girl narrative. The musical takes place in a fishing-port town in late 19th Century Maine, where we meet fellow millworkers Julie Jordan (the lovely Amanda Leigh Jerry) and her somewhat high-strung BFF Carrie Pipperidge (Amanda Hootman) enjoying a seaside amusement park with other townsfolk. Eventually, they decide to ride the park’s carousel at dusk.

Soon enough, the carousel’s owner, Mrs. Mullin (Erica Hanrahan-Ball) notices and becomes jealous of the attention being showered on Julie by the carousel’s popular barker, Billy (the superb Doug Carpenter, fresh from Broadway’s “BEAUTIFUL”). Mrs. Mullin confronts both girls later, informing them that they were no longer allowed near the carousel. When Billy arrives in the middle of the arguments, he defends the girls and mocks Mrs. Mullin, which results in his termination. Without skipping a beat, Billy asks Julie if she wanted to get a drink together later. Swoon.

While Billy leaves with Mrs. Mullin to collect his personal belongings, the girls have a quick gab session: Julie refuses to admit he’s got the hots for the handsome ex-carousel barker, but Carrie thinks otherwise and laughs at her tight-lipped friend. Encouraged by JUL not being single anymore, Carrie is emboldened to admit that she, too, has a beau: successful fisherman/entrepreneur/nerdy romantic Enoch Snow (Justin Cowden), who has just proposed to her!

When Billy returns, Carrie hurriedly rushes off—the millworkers, after all, have a strict curfew and must return to their boarding house before a certain time or they will be fired. Undeterred, Julie decides to stay with Billy anyway, surprising them both. Eventually, when her own boss walks by with a police officer, she is fired on the spot for refusing to be escorted back to the mill.

Both now unemployed, Billy and Carrie continue their achingly sweet chat, refusing to acknowledge outright that they are truly falling in love with each other. Cue blossoms falling. Cue swelling music. Cue the perfect passionate first kiss.

Some time passes and, surprise, Billy still doesn’t have a job. The newlyweds are staying with Julie’s cousin Nettie (Sarah Uriarte Berry) for the time being as the citizens prepare for June to, you know, bust out all over. The big to-do at the start of summer is the huge clambake across the bay where there will also be a scavenger hunt for a treasure. Everyone is excited except for Billy who doesn’t want to participate even though his wife wants to do something fun.

Aching to tell someone, Julie decides to tell her best friend Carrie that Billy hits her, explaining that it happens because Billy isn’t happy with how his life is going. Carrie, for her part, shares the news that she is now engaged to the increasingly successful Mr. Snow, but is a little nervous about all of her attentive, loving fiancé’s grand, uber-romantic plans for their married life. I bet Julie wants to slap Carrie herself right after hearing all that, but keeps it inside.

Meanwhile Billy’s hanging around with his swindler pal Jigger (Jeff Skowron), a bad-boy whaler with a nefarious reputation. Desperate to do better by Carrie (you know, instead of hitting her), Billy is on the lookout for a quick buck to turn his fortunes around, if only to provide a short-term solution to his on-going problem. With work scarce for someone like Billy, wicked little Jigger offers his buddy a very illegal solution: while everyone’s stuffed up with chowder and lobster and then out and about on the treasure hunt, the two of them will sneak back onto the main island and rob wealthy mill owner Mr. Bascombe (Sean Smith) on his trip to the bank with his cash deposits for the day. Jigger instructs Billy to get a concealable knife to use as a weapon to do the deed. 

At first, Billy refuses the scheme, especially since it could potentially mean having to fatally harm someone. But after learning that Julie is preggers with their first child, Billy agrees to assist Jigger with the robbery, consequences be damned. Why? Because, though overjoyed with the prospect of fatherhood to a son, he is apprehensive about what he—“a bum with no money!”—could provide for a baby daughter. In a seven-minute tour-de-force “Soliloquy,” Billy vows in song to do everything he can to make sure his child will get everything he/she needs.

“I’ll go out and make it, or steal it, or take it, or die!” Billy promises to the universe.

Who knew his words are a foreshadowing of his immediate future?

Beautifully staged in a classic book musical treatment you’d expect from a typical production of “CAROUSEL,” MTW’s revival eschews a fresh take on the material and instead allows the original intent and context of the musical to speak (well, sing) for itself. While I am certainly curious to see what a revitalized version of “CAROUSEL” may look like (if it’s even contractually allowed), I almost want to say that it doesn’t necessarily need one. As musical theater classics go, “CAROUSEL” is pretty glorious as it is, warts and all. I do still appreciate this rather faithful rendering, filled with many of the same timeless touch-points people have come to enjoy about the show. That Act 2 ballet that depicts Billy’s kid being rejected by her peers is an unbridled burst of emotions that audiences today can still appreciate solely for its artistry. Kudos to choreographer Daniel Smith for his soulful new dance moves.

The cast, of course, is highly instrumental in dramatizing this musical in the best possible light.

As Billy, Carpenter is truly an intriguing actor to watch, that is when you’re not already mesmerized by his unbelievably marvelous singing voice. He makes for a very compelling Billy (I rank him quite high among actors I’ve seen essay this role), and displays the traits of an accomplished actor able to channel his character’s id and rage as well as his insecurities and fears—sometimes within the same sentence. That point I made about the character being an asshole? Well, Carpenter manages to make him empathy-worthy and a likable enough guy despite his objectionable shortcomings (which, frankly, I still don’t dismiss entirely).

Carpenter’s towering stature and Jerry’s vulnerability sells the idea of opposites attracting so well. Despite the awkward meet-up during their characters’ initial flirtation, the couple’s chemistry still emanates brightly, even as their respective characters try to find the words to express to each other how they really feel. For her part, Jerry’s admirable take on Carrie is further enhanced by her beautiful singing voice, tinged with heartache and euphoria. When she tries to sing through “You’ll Never Walk Alone” fighting back tears, it is a heartbreaking but breathlessly cathartic moment.

As Carrie, Julie’s closest pal, Hootman is, well, a hoot providing the musical’s few sources for comic relief. Paired with Cowden as her betrothed Enoch, the two make for a lively, buoyant contrast to the troubled coupling of Julie and Billy.

Other cast standouts include Skowron, who, as expected from previous roles, is terrific as the scoundrel Jigger. The Ovation-winning actor gives his character just the right balance of icky-ness and playfulness, that prevents other characters from seeing his true nature: an even darker, more sinister bad dude with murderous intent underneath. And Berry’s mother-hen persona is duly noted in the musical as Nettie, the woman who observes all and, occasionally, scolds all. In many ways, she represents all of us in the audience—all wanting to protect and hug Julie from bad guys that treat her wrong. Plus, what a voice! “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” feels more like a joyful aria than a showtune with her lead.

Overall, MTW’s local revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is a rock-solid production that displays the many wonderful things that old-school musical theater has passed down to modern musicals of today that can still stir genuine emotions and stir thoughtful conversations. That, after all, is what great art can do. 

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.

Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West.

Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's production of CAROUSEL continue through Sunday, April 9, 2017 and are scheduled Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. EVITA is performed at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.

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