Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven
Director Charles Newell brings a fresh approach to the timeless Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, “Carousel,” now on stage at Long Wharf. And though one misses the old conventional version, where the songs burst forth gloriously, this new “Carousel” has a jolting effect that brings the story into sharp focus.
The big bouncy production numbers have been replaced by ensemble work that emphasizes the book’s dark ambience. And here Newell is blessed with the brilliant choreographer Randy Duncan. Duncan’s work, for the most part, truly serves the plot, always suggesting the menace that lies just beneath the best of times in “Carousel.” It is an effect achieved with few props or set pieces, but with the fluid movement of bodies.
Working with scenic designer John Culbert, Newell has envisioned a set which conjures up an imaginary world, in keeping with Molnar’s original play “Liliom." His “Carousel” is not just a New England village of the 1890s, but a fantasy world, a Brigadoon painted in dark colors. How appropriate, since the story invades a world beyond death! Billy Bigelow dies, goes to heaven, and finally returns to earth.
“Carousel” is indeed one of the more tragic Rogers and Hammerstein shows, though it ends on a note of hope. Billy Bigelow, a carousel barker, and mill worker Julie Jordan fall in love. It is an unlikely match. He has the deserved reputation of a ne’er-do-well, while she is a loyal, decent, and, alas, naïve girl. When they marry and Julie becomes pregnant, Billy is unemployed, but determined to find money for his family.
The results are disastrous, but not without glorious music along the way. Although Newell plays down the songs, letting his performers offer them in a throwaway style, they cannot be denied. Who can resist “The Carousel Waltz,” “If I Loved You,” and “June is Bustin’ Out All Over”—among others?
Performances, too, tend to be low-keyed, but both Jessie Mueller (as Julie’s friend Carrie) and Laura Scheinbaum (as Julie’s daughter) create feisty characters. And Nicholas Belton is an engaging Billy Bigelow, though his harsh renditions of songs disappoints. But his moments with Julie (played by Johanna McKenzie Miller) are tender, and his exchanges with crony Jigger (strongly portrayed by Matthew Brumlow) carry a sting.
One disturbing contradiction: Newell stresses the Victorian values of the town, with single girls forbidden from spending time alone with men, staying out late, or showing an ankle. But in Newell’s clambake scene, he has the girls lolling about the ground, wrapped in blankets, snuggling with boys.
On the whole, however, Newell has pulled off an intriguing experiment. He must be commended for giving a new vision to an old musical, for pouring old wine into new casks.
-- Irene Backalenick
May 17, 2008