Friday, August 3, 2012

Theater Review: Carousel -- Goodspeed

 James Snyder and Teal Wicks. Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Colorful Backdrop, Soothing Music Soften a Harsh Story
By Lauren Yarger
Looking at Michael Schweikardt's beautifully painted New England Town, the soft pastels and late-19th century costumes by Alejo Vietti and hearing Rodgers and Hammerstein's moving score (the able Michale O'Flaherty music directs), you might be tempted to think that Carousel is a good place to be.

The unhappy characters living in the seafaring community in the production getting a run at the Goodspeed Opera House would disagree with you, however. Billy Bigelow (James Snyder) does a lot of drinking and gambling while working as a barker for the carousel run by the manipulative Mrs. Mullin (Deanne Lorette) who lusts after him. Julie (Teal Wicks) drudges away at the mill with best friend, Carrie (Jenn Gambatese), while dreaming of a better life.

When Billy and Julie meet it's love -- or some kind of overpowering attraction -- at first site and they get married. Both lose their jobs and they move in with Julie's Aunt Nettie (Anne Kanengeiser) who runs a hotel. Carrie marries fisherman Enoch Snow (Jeff Kready) who dreams of expanding his business, and she helps out struggling Julie who stays with Billy, even when he hits her. Billy has a sudden jolt of responsibility when he discovers that Julie is expecting a baby and plans for the future (Snyder ably executes the famous soliloquy).

His scheme to provide for his family isn't too smart, however. He and thug/friend Jigger (Tally Sessions) stalk Julie's former boss, David Bascombe (Jonathan Rayson), to rob him on his way to make a $3,000 deposit at the bank. The plan doesn't go off as expected and Billie kills himself to escape capture. He is transported to a kind of purgatory where a heavenly Starkeeper (Ronn Carroll) gives him a chance to see how Julie and his daughter, Louise (Eloise Kropp), now a teen, are doing down on earth.

It's a bummer of a story -- especially with the wife singing Hammerstein lyrics about how you have to stay with your man even if he's beating you.

Common sense may tell you
That the ending will be sad,
And now's the time to break and run away.
But what's the use of wond'ring
If the ending will be sad?
He's your feller and you love him,
There's nothing more to say.

Something made him the way that he is,
Whether he's false or true,
And something gave him the things that are his,
One of those things is you, so

When he wants your kisses,
You will give them to the lad,
And anywhere he leads you, you will walk.
And anytime he needs you,
You'll go running there like mad.
You're his girl and he's your feller,
And all the rest is talk.

Is that supposed to define love? And was Billy's stabbing himself to escape arrest and leaving his wife and child to fend for themselves an act of love in return? Not by any definition I care to embrace. Eventually, the story focuses on forgiveness and not taking love for granted, but as is the case with many of Hammerstein's musical books, I want to get out a red pen and rewrite (this script is based on Ferenc Molnar's 1909 play Lilliom, adapted into English by Benjamin F. Glazer).
Carousel followed Rodgers and Hammerstein's success with the brighter Oklahoma ,but it feels darker and sadder in mood like Showboat, Hammerstein's earlier collaboration with Jerome Kern, which ironically also features a character named Julie left by her husband.

Goodspeed Director Rob Ruggiero's production of the classic, like the ups and downs experienced while riding a carousel horse (the carousel is wonderfully recreated for the prologue on the restrictive Goodspeed stage), has moments of delight and some disappointments. Let's start with the good stuff:
  • Supporting actors never looked so good. Gambatese (always excellent) is the embodiment of fun, kindness and hope (and this show needs them!) as the young girl in love with Enoch, enchantingly portrayed by Kready. Everyone in the audience wants to marry him (despite the herring smell that lingers on him) and we're all delighted to see his success and growing family (that littlest kid -- Ethan Pancoast the night I attended -- in the little Cracker Jack outfit is too adorable). Both deliver beautiful vocals on songs like "Mr. Snow," "Geraniums in the Winder." and "when the Children Are Asleep." Also a sheer delight is Carroll in dual roles as the Starkeeper and as Doctor Sheldon. He's the only one who has the Maine accent down right. You'll Never Hear a Better "You'll Never Walk Alone" than the one sung by terrific mezzo Kanengeiser 
  • The painted set -- gorgeous, beautifully lighted by John Lasiter. Costumes -- lovely.
  • The choreography of the ballet scene featuring Kropp is a ballet itself. Choreographer Parker Esse adds to original dances by Agnes DeMille to combine storytelling, character development and sexual frustration (though I would lose three male dancers representing carousel horses who show up on the beach to snort at Louise -- it is too creepy and Equus-esque.)
Now for some of the downs:
  • After the initial vision of the carousel, the action is very slow-moving through the first part of Act One. In fact, there are a number of awkward pauses -- some filled by applause by an audience uncertain of whether a song has finished. The much shorter second half moves at a more brisk pace, but folks did leave at intermission (the show clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission).
  • There isn't much chemistry between Snyder and Wicks. Perhaps a new coupling will bring different sparks. Wicks departs to join the road tour of Jekyll & Hyde and will be replaced in the role by Erin Davie, who played Guenevere in Carousel's 2009 production of Camelot.
  • Snyder needs some vocal coaching -- first to control the levels of his nice-sounding baritone, and second to prevent strain. He struggled to hit notes in the reprise of "If I Loved You" toward the end of the second act.
Carousel has been extended through Sept. 29. For tickets and performance schedule call 860-873-8668 or visit

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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