Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, April 2008
There is a debate about which is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest work – Carousel or South Pacific. I lean towards saying that South Pacific is the better overall show, but Carousel contains their greatest music and lyrics.
If you go to the production of Carousel currently running at the Cohoes Music Hall you will hear – live and unmiked – every glorious note and syllable of the masters’ work. Director Jim Charles has assembled a marvelous cast of gifted singers, and if this were a concert version of the show nothing more would be necessary, but this supposed to be a fully staged production. The sets, lights and costumes are there, but the acting is sadly missing.
Carousel is based on the1909 tragedy Liliom by Ferenc Molnár which, in its English translation, was a very popular in America during the first half of the 20th century. Hammerstein kept Molnár’s plot pretty much in tact but transferred the action from Hungary to a Maine fishing village in the late 19th century and gave the ending a slight twist to make it more hopeful than depressing.
In other words this is not musical comedy, this is musical drama. But somewhere in the ensuing 63 years we became wedded to the notion that Rodgers & Hammerstein = Cute & Happy. Just because they wrote and composed in a time that was more repressed in the way it dealt with sex and violence doesn’t mean they don’t address those issues – it just means that they address them obliquely inside of directly.
For instance, it is perfectly obvious why Julie stays with Billy, and it is a remarkably bold thing for her to do. In that one act she loses the only valuable possessions a woman could own in those days - her job and her reputation/virginity. Without the latter she cannot regain the former, not can she expect to make any kind of a marriage since she is “damaged goods.” Of course in Rodger-and-Hammerstein-Land Billy and Julie “marry,” but we learn in Act II that Julie and her daughter Louise continue to be social pariahs because of Julie’s one rash act.
When Carrie sings You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan she doesn’t mean that Julie is queer/funny in that spunky, ditsy That Girl kind of way, she means that Julie literally lives and thinks outside the very restrictive small town social system into which she was born. (Just where are Julie’s parents, by the way?) And even Carrie, who tries so hard to live within the boundaries of propriety, nearly forfeits everything when she allows Jigger to con her into some horseplay after the clam bake. The female chorus quickly tells her “There's nothin' so bad for a woman as a man who's bad or good!”
Making a living from the sea, being a “factory girl,” dealing with the harsh and isolating Maine winters, this was not an easy or cute life, but you’d never know it from the squeaky clean crowd that graces the stage at Cohoes. Charles obviously hasn’t listened to Hammerstein’s book and lyrics because, even in their mid-20th-century way, they make it pretty clear what this place looks and sounds and smells like. These characters are all lower class, with the exception of Mr. Snow who is desperately clinging to the lower rung of the middle, scraping by and amusing themselves with basic ammenities like sex – June is Busting Out All Over – and food – A Real Nice Clam Bake.
These are not nice people. Billy Bigelow is a stupid man who is inordinately proud of the two things he can do – be a carousel barker and service all the willing women – neither of which is any great accomplishment. Julie Jordan is a heedless headstrong girl. They do love each other, but their union is doomed from the first moment, and Hammerstein spells that out clearly in their love song:
If I loved you,
Words wouldn't come in an easy way
Round in circles I'd go!
Longin' to tell you,
But afraid and shy
I'd let my golden chances pass me by!
Soon you'd leave me,
Off you would go in the mist of day,
Never, never to know
How I loved you.
So why do Jason Fleck (Billy) and Jeannie Shubitz (Julie) look so darned clean and handsome and happy? And so well dressed. Julie is ridiculously over-dressed, especially in Act II when, after years of living (how?) and raising Louise she sits glowing and coiffed beside Carrie, who is gushing about her trip to New York.
I had high hopes for the Fleck and Shubitz team in these roles. I knew they could sing them beautifully, and, as an engaged couple in real life, I hoped they could play Billy and Julie’s passion convincingly. Alas, they are completely passionless, Shubitz even seems wooden and cold as her Julie kneels beside Billy’s body.
In fact the whole central part of Act II, leading up to Jigger and Billy’s hopelessly bungled burglary attempt and Billy’s cowardly resort to suicide, was played painfully slowly, as if everyone on stage was moving mechanically towards a safe and bloodless dénouement signifying absolutely nothing.
Tony Rivera was jolly, rather than chilling, as the evil Jigger, which is odd considering his full-blooded portrayal of Bernardo in West Side Story a few years back. Jerielle Morwitz seemed utterly lost as Mrs. Mullins, the carousel proprietress and Billy’s former lover.
Carrie (Emily Casale) and Enoch Snow (Martin C. Hurt) are supposed to provide both comic relief as well as social contrast to Julie and Billy’s poverty-stricken angst, but Casale manages to be too much like Shubitz’s Julie – another pretty blonde who sings well – and Hurt misses all the comedy in his pompous alter-ego.
Ruth Croson really nails her big solo on You’ll Never Walk Alone, but she never convinces me she is a middle-aged Maine fishwife. Again, she is too clean, too well dressed, and never in character as Julie’s Aunt Nettie. I confess to not recognizing Jerry Christakos as The Starkeeper/Dr. Seldon, partly because he actually managed to create a character, someone new and interesting that I hadn’t seen before and didn’t expect. And I loved Alison Lehane and Kelly Swint as his sassy Heavenly Helpers.
Cohoes is known for its sensational staging of big dance shows, and Carousel is not one of those. In addition, Charles has clearly cast singers, not dancers, which is okay since dance is only integral in the end of Act II, where Kasey Scanlon (as Louise) and Robert Teasdale to a wonderful job. But two dancers do not an ensemble make, and in those numbers choreographer Jessica Costa has precious little to work with. Everyone does his or her very best, but it is strange to see such tame and basic dance steps on a stage that Tralen Doler so often fills with amazing and athletic excellence.
Team Fick – scenic designer Jen Price Fick and lighting designer Matt Fick – actually seem to understand the show’s dark side much more clearly than Charles. Under a perpetual leafy bower of Maine forest, only dappled light sneaks through to illuminate the characters shady dealings and tragic errors. A revolve is used to good effect not only to animate the titular carousel at the beginning but to move characters through time as well as space.
Harsh as my criticism of the acting has been, this is a beautiful Carousel to listen to and to look at. If you are a fan of the show, hearing it so magnificently sung without artificial amplification is worth the price of a ticket. There will always be another production of Carousel to see, but you’d be hard pressed to find one better to listen to.
Carousel, presented by C-R Productions, runs through May 18 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. Performances are scheduled for Thursdays at 8 p.m.,Friday and Saturday Evenings at 8 p.m., Sunday Matinees at 3 p.m., and one Saturday Matinee at 3 p.m. on the last Saturday of each production. The show runs two hours and forty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 8 and up. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008