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THEATER REVIEW - Carousel

by Chris Conley

THEATER REVIEW (WSAU)   Tonight we drink the aged, vintage wine from the old oak barrels. When the pinnacle of musical theater is offered, drink heartily. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel is among the select group of musicals near the top of a golden age. UW-Stevens Point’s Carousel was the best night of theater I’ve seen this year. This is a production that gets all the important things right, even down to the Maine dialect that my brother-in-law in Ogunquit would recognize.

The revolving stage at the Jenkins Theater works. The performance space is a large semi-circle, at times some performers' backs are towards you, especially if your seat is off to the side. I adjusted to this in the opening moments, and came to appreciate seeing members of the ensemble closer than I otherwise would as they slowly rotated towards me. The staging put more of a spotlight on the supporting cast, and there were many, many strong performances in the company. Abbey Immer, as Julie Pipperidge and Krystina Hawkinson as Nettie Fowler were the best singers. Hawkinson led the company is one of the best "June is Bustin' Out All Over's" I'd heard in years. The cast was full of other little delights. Nick Wheeler's first appearance as Enoch Snow looks as though he, indeed, spent some time in the shallows with the sardines. Jalen Johnson played the mill owner David Bascombe perfectly, stern but not heavy. Hanna Gaffney found the right balance as the widowed carousel owner. Her proposition to her ex-barker wasn't full of desperation; it was a business deal -- the kind that is easily left behind when a deeper, more emotional love is in play.

Madeleine Gregor and Micah Wallace are the principal dancers in the second act, and faithfully recreate and Agnes de Mille choreography of nearly 70 years ago. She is both confident and lithe in her solo dancing. He his a strong, powerful presence. Both made up for some of the earlier ensemble dancing, which wasn't as tight as I might have hoped.

Carousel is rich with all the themes that make for great musical theater – reckless love, suspense, slightly implausible intervention, and, at last, redemption. The gift of Carousel is the way we are piece-by-piece drawn into caring about a character who isn’t likable. Our analytical mind identifies Billy Bigelow as a brute and a bum with an unchecked ego. The parent in us would tell Julie to stay far away. Yet add in a rich score and the love of a good woman, and we sense that Billy may yet be changed.

To weave abuse, criminality, murder and suicide into what is ultimately a love story is heavy lifting for a musical. Just two years earlier Rodgers & Hammerstein broke new ground with the much-easier-to-construct Oklahoma!  Audiences had never seen music and dance used so extensively to advance the storyline. Henceforth songs and footwork wouldn’t be interruptions of the narrative—they’d be part of it. But each character was straight-forward and almost static: Curley, the self confident leading man; Laurie, the hard-to-get sweetheart; Auntie Eller, the community glue; Jud Fry, the villain; Ado Annie, the flirt. They interact but are unchanged.

I'd always suspected that the seeds of Carousel were planted in Richard Rodgers' and Oscar Hammerstein's earlier works before they became collaborators. 15 years earlier Hammerstein contributed some of the lyrics to Show Boat, where gambler Gaylord Ravenal might give up his vices for the love of his daughter. Ultimately he’s not transformed; he’s taken back as-is. Rodgers undoubtedly learned a lesson from Pal Joey, where five years hence he wrote exceptional music for a cast of scoundrels. He learned that audiences would never quite warm up to villains and jerks. No matter how well they sing, they’ll be held at arms length.

Carousel's score and book give Billy Bigelow the building blocks to win us over. But it still takes a highly skilled actor to pull it off. Bryce Dutton was a worthy star. He filled the stage with his inflated ego, but held just enough back so the audience realized that it's the only type of flirting Billy Bigelow knows. Allegra Berglund, as Julie, has the biggest acting challenge of the play. 10 minutes in she has to convince us that she's leaving a friend and employment for a chance encounter. She isn't flighty or dumb or star-struck, we need to sense that she's weighed the pro and cons quickly and 'nothing-ventured nothing-gained' won out. When Billy, Julie and their daughter all reappear for the final scene, we know they are all different.

A character redeemed through song and dance was new ground when Carousel was first staged. Without its success there would not have been Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man; or Roxie Hart in Chicago; or even a certain phantom who haunts a Paris opera house. These characters are hucksters, murderesses, and kidnappers… we come to love them through a spell that only musical theater can cast. If Carousel hadn’t succeeded so wonderfully, we might not know them at all.

Chris Conley
11.8.13

Correction - In my review I incorrectly wrote that this production used the original 1943 Agnes de Mille choreography. It does not. The dances were choreographed by UWSP faculty member Jeannie Hill. That her work compares favorably to a Master speaks to its quality.