Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2009
The title of Carousel makes you think of color, music, movement, and summer carefree afternoons, but behind that mask lies a tragic tale of lives wasted and ruined. A hopeful, if not happy ending, has been appended, but we have no guarantee that any of the central characters lives (or dies) happily ever after.
One thing modern audiences aren’t aware of is how familiar theatergoers who first saw Carousel in 1945 were with the source material, Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 tragedy Lilliom which was first performed in English in 1921 and was so popular that it was revived on Broadway several times as well as touring and playing regionally (Orson Welles directed a radio adaptation) throughout the quarter century before it was musicalized. In Lilliom the Billy Bigelow character is sent to Hell for failing to help his teen-aged daughter, whose life presumably continues on a troubled path, making the future bleak for her impoverished and widowed mother, Julie.
I have often perceived Carousel as the story of three women – Julie Jordan (Patricia Noonan), her best friend Carrie Pipperidge (Sara Jean Ford), and her daughter Louise (Kristen Paulicelli) – and how their choice of men impacts their lives. But in Julianne Boyd’s production at Barrington Stage the show is all about Billy Bigelow (Aaron Ramey.) I have never seen the role acted and sung so well and having this central character so fully fleshed out is key to how we perceive Julie, Carrie, Louise, and the crucial issue of spousal abuse in the plot.
Ramey and Boyd helped me see for the first time how impulsive and unintelligent Billy really is. He doesn’t have the brains and the self-control to be who and what he wants to be, let alone who he should be. He genuinely loves Julie and Louise, but he cannot be the man they need. When Carrie tells Julie, as they kneel beside Billy’s body, that she is better off now that he’s dead, she readily agrees. And if she had the wherewithal to move herself and Louise away from the small town that knew Billy, they would be better off still. Everything that is wrong with Julie’s life is a result of her meeting Billy.
Which is where Carousel begins – with that fateful moment when Julie first sees him. It takes quite a while for him to see her, and in their later conversation it is clear that she has made little impression on him initially. But she wants him and she risks everything to have him. And she loses, big time.
If that’s not a tragic story I don’t know what is.
Except that this is a musical and so as soon as we’ve met Julie and Billy and watched their ill-fated love blossom, the chorus dances in and tells us June is Busting Out All Over. Although I knew it was going to happen, I felt a disconnect between the serious tone Rodgers and Hammerstein and Boyd had worked so hard to develop and the sudden sight of people who were supposed to be weather-beaten, hard-working Maine fishermen and their families, leaping about like ballet dancers in brightly colored costumes.
Boyd has assembled a top-notch cast. As I mentioned before, Ramey is outstanding. At the performance I attended his rendition of the iconic Soliloquy was so powerful that the audience didn’t want to stop applauding. Ford is an adorable Carrie, and she is neatly paired with the lively Todd Buonopane as Enoch Snow. Carrie and Enoch are the safe, comfortable couple in contrast to Julie and Billy’s dangerous liaison, but in a conversation I had with Boyd a few weeks ago we both agreed that Enoch Snow is not really a very nice person. He is snobbish, greedy, and controlling. His early number in which he neatly outlines his plans to over-fish the herring population and build a big cannery on the river is poignant in these more ecologically savvy times. Buonopane brings just the right measure of unctuousness to the role, along with a glorious singing voice and a sprightly manner that is a perfect match for Ford’s. Carrie is easily the most likable character in the show, and Ford makes her a complete woman as well as a welcome comedic contrast to Julie.
Noonan’s Julie is surprisingly vulnerable. You wonder if she is very much brighter than Billy. She seems to make her early decision between her man and her job way too easily. In a small New England town in 1890 all a woman had was her reputation and to give it away so glibly seems dim-witted as well as foolhardy. But Noonan looks lovely and sings well. She fares better in Julie’s more dramatic scenes in the second act than she does in the love scenes early on.
Teri Ralston is a feisty Nettie Fowler, soloing poignantly on You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Christopher Innvar, who has played many handsome heroes at Barrington Stage, appears here as the sleazy crook, Jigger Craigin. In my discussion with Boyd about the relative merits of the male characters in Carousel we also agreed that Jigger was nasty, but that Jud Fry in Oklahoma! was creepier. With Ramey making Billy’s intellectual deficiencies so clear, it becomes equally obvious that Jigger is very smart and makes his way in the world using dumb lunks like Billy to do his dirty work. Mrs. Mullin (Leslie Becker) warns Billy not to end up dead like Jigger’s last accomplice did, but of course he does.
Of the many fine dancers performing Joshua Bergasse’s choreography in this production, Paulicelli is a stand-out in her solo ballet as Louise, and is nicely partnered at one point by Al Blackstone.
Todd Thurston (Mr. Bascombe), Daniel Marcus (Starkeeper, Captain, and Dr. Seldon), and Christy Morton (First Heavenly Friend) are solid and appealing in their supporting roles. Edmund Bagnell caught my eye playing fiddle as well as dancing and singing in Blow High, Blow Low and the subsequent hornpipe. He also played the Second Heavenly Friend and Enoch Snow, Jr., to good effect.
The musical accompaniment for this production is reduced to two pianos. While the musicianship of Musical Director Darren Cohen and his Assistant Adam Laird is not to be faulted, it was nice when, in the hornpipe, Bagnell joined in on violin and in This Was A Real Nice Clambake the cast added depth to the score with hand-held percussion instruments.
Do professional singers in an intimate house like the BSC Main Stage really need to be body miked to be heard above two pianos? I hope the answer is no! While I understand that funneling the sound through speakers enables BSC to provide assisted listening devices for the hearing impaired, I wish an alternative method could be found to allow for a more natural sound for the rest of us while still providing aid to those who need it.
I really had a hard, hard time with the costumes Holly Cain has designed for the women. Most of the play is set in 1890 and there was no connection between those flouncy, overly-bright pastel dresses and what women of that social status of that time and in that place would have worn. Nor did they significantly change their dress for the final scenes, which take place in 1905. I realize that honing too close to reality would render the color pallet drab, but there has to be a happy medium between what looked like costumes borrowed from a recent high school production and stark reality. And WHY was the police department dressed like choristers from The Pirates of Penzance?? The dichotomy between the excellence of the every other aspect of the production and the inappropriateness of those costumes drove me crazy throughout the performance.
When I first heard of the tragic beating death of a Pittsfield woman at the hands of her boyfriend a few weeks ago, I felt badly for Boyd and her company having chosen to play this show in that town this summer. I wandered around melodramatically announcing that I wasn’t sure I could write about Carousel when such a horrible crime had been committed so close by. Then someone said to me: “Gail, everywhere you go you are close to a victim of spousal abuse, it’s all around us.” Damn right it is! We should not wait for a production of Carousel (or A Streetcar Named Desire which Boyd is directing in August) or, God forbid, a murder, to turn our attention to this ongoing horror in our society. I am pleased to announce that Barrington Stage is teaming with the Elizabeth Freeman Center and the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts to present a discussion of the issue with Elizabeth Freeman Director Janis Broderick following the 7 p.m. performance of Carousel on Wednesday, July 8.
On a happier note, Pittsfield is working towards building its own Carousel, and Bob Goldsack will speak on "The History of Carousels - A Forgotten Art Form" at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, July 1 at the Ferrin Gallery, 437 North Street in Pittsfield. Admission is free but seating is limited and so tickets and reservations are required.
The Barrington Stage Company production of the Carousel runs through July 11 at the Main Stage, 30 Union Street in Pittsfield, MA. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. Please call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org to purchase tickets or for more information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009
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