Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2005
In 1999, Time Magazine looked back over the entire 20th century, a century that saw the American musical take shape, and named Rodgers and Hammerstein’s second collaboration Carousel the Best Musical of the Century! High praise indeed. Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves liked Carousel the best of all their creations. The Mac-Haydn has labored hard and brought forth a decent production of this masterpiece, but they seem to have a hard time forgetting that Carousel is not a musical comedy. I suspect that the same marketing genius who named Greenland and Las Vegas (Spanish for “the meadows) had a hand in titling Carousel. These names are useless beyond the immediate lure. Once you get there you quickly discover that Greenland is a glacier, Las Vegas is a desert, and Carousel is not a musical comedy. It is a sad story of a wasted life. Only America’s own cock-eyed optimist Oscar Hammerstein II could have injected the story with even a glimmer of hope.
Hungarian-born playwright Ferenc Molnár (1878-1952), who, in 1909, wrote the play Liliom on which Carousel is based, must have sensed this, for he turned down other offers to musicalize his story, including one from Giacomo Puccini, in favor of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Molnar’s Liliom, in an English translation and adaptation by Benjamin F. Glazer, was produced in New York in 1921, 1932, and 1940, before Oklahoma! producers Lawrence Langner and Theresa Helburn of The Theatre Guild, eager for another hit, brought the property to Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1944. Molnar, by then living in the United States, gave his approval and okayed a change in the setting of the play from Budapest to a small costal community in Maine. Carousel opened on Broadway in April of 1945 and ran for 890 performances.
The show opens with a 15 minute scene in mime, while Hammerstein’s beautiful "Carousel Waltz" is played. Set designer Kevin Gleason has opened up the Mac-Haydn space as wide as it will go for this mammoth production. In combination with Andrew Gmoser’s innovative lighting a true carnival atmosphere is achieved as the early moments of the play are enacted. The three young men who literally “ran” the carousel on the stage are to be commended for their strength and coordination. The end result was most effective.
The opening scene introduces us to some key players: mill-workers Julie Jordan (Lauren Elizabeth Loss) and Carrie Pipperidge (Karla Shook), Carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Jake Alrich) and the Carousel’s jealous owner Mrs. Mullin (Erin Spears). And immediately the three major problems with this production are apparent. Director John Saunders has placed too much emphasis on the frivolity and fun of the carnival. My eye kept wandering from the main action to the excitement on the sidelines. Alrich is way too young and pretty to be a convincing Billy. And Carousel is almost too big to fit into the Mac-Haydn. I saw the very first public performance of the show, and I have to say that I had grave concerns about both Loss and Alrich in the beginning. Both are new to the Mac-Haydn and both got off to a shaky start. I was grateful for Shook who kept the show moving along in her usual professional manner until the two newbies got their feet back underneath them and took off.
By the end I was very pleased with both Loss and Alrich, but they had to work hard for that approval. Alrich didn’t manage to age sufficiently during the three plus hours of the show to grow into his role, but he did sing beautifully and bring great energy to the part, which allowed me to accept him even though he wasn’t right. Loss came into her own as the drama intensified. By Billy’s death scene she had me sobbing right along with her, and I was hooked.
As I mentioned, Loss and Alrich are well supported by Shook and by Richard Koons as Carrie’s intended, Enoch Snow. Carrie and Mr. Snow provide an important balance to a story that would otherwise be overwhelmed by its tragic tale of a young man who literally can’t do anything right. In my last Mac-Haydn review I spoke of the uniform excellence of Tiffany Thornton. This time out I would like to sing similar praises of Karla Shook. Every time I see Shook, whether she is playing an amnesiac nun, an over-the-hill stripper, a patient and loving wife, a gun moll, or an ingénue, I know that she will be good. When she takes the stage and you know everything is going to be alright.
Koons, who I admired in The Student Prince is less well suited to this role. He has to keep his lovely operatic tenor in harness and play the clown, but he manages to make Mr. Snow loveable in the end.
Two other standouts in the supporting cast are Christine Boger as Nettie Fowler and Byron DeMent as Jigger Craigin. Boger is an old pro come back to the theater after a hiatus to raise a family. I defy you to keep your lip from quivering when she sings "You’ll Never Walk Alone". In The Student Prince DeMent was trussed up as an “old man,” something he definitely is not. Here he is let loose to play his own age and he is very good as the bad boy of the docks.
Stephen Bolte, who spent two frenetic weeks as Lutz in The Student Prince, is fine in a much calmer mode here in a series of small parts, including the Stargazer and Dr. Seldon.
As I said before, this is a very big show. Saunders and his design team have crammed everything in as tight as they can, but the endeavor reminds of the job of inserting a very large cat into a pet carrier. I once had a very large cat to which this had to be done periodically, and, no matter how quick and clever I tried to be, that darned animal always managed to expand while I wasn’t looking so that he didn’t fit, not matter what the angle of approach.
Just when Saunders and company have got the actors all crammed in, the set expands from earth to heaven (very big place heaven, bigger than my cat). And when heaven is got on to the stage safely there comes the need for a long dream ballet sequence. And when that is out of the way, a high school graduation ceremony needs to take place. Phew! The end result is three hours and fifteen minutes of mostly very good Rodgers and Hammerstein, but I get exhausted just thinking about it. I admire the energy of the cast who oft-times get to perform this spectacle twice a day.
Kelly Shook has provided the choreography, and I think there is rather too much of it. A lot of it is good, but some of it is silly and most of it is in the happy peppy musical comedy mode that is so inappropriate to this show. If half of the dancing was cut I bet they could get the show down under three hours and things would move along more quickly.
That being said I admired the dancing skills of Katie Fox-Kirsch as Louise Bigelow and Felix Hess as her Carnival Boy in the dream ballet. Every year the Mac-Haydn brings in a blonde who can lift her ankle to her ear while smiling broadly, and this year it is Jennifer Cameron, who does a nice job as the lead dancer in "June Is Busting Out All Over".
Now for my costume kvetchings. Jimm Halliday has done his usual fine job of providing a passel of attractive costumes for a cast of varying shapes, sizes, and ages - and two complete klinkers. First, those rust colored pants that Koons is forced to wear for most of the show are the most ill-fitting and unattractive things I have seen in a long time. Everyone, no matter how short, tall, wide or narrow they are, deserves to appear on stage in clothes that fit. He had pants that fit him in The Student Prince and he has pants that fit him at the end of this show. There is no reason for him not to be properly clothed. Second, fishermen do not wear leather motorcycle overalls. Leather and salt water are a bad combination. Fall overboard in leather pants in even the calmest seas and you are (literally) sunk. What Jigger ought to be wearing are a pair of waders from Orvis, or L.L. Bean. Isn’t there an avid fly-fisher in Chatham who could loan the Mac a pair?
Carousel runs through July 3 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs three hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family, although children under 10 may find it a long time to sit. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005