Carousel: So Close

 Ian Huffam

            Rodgers and Hammerstein is almost always a safe bet when doing community musical theatre – with familiar plots, soaring songs, and a simple message, any of the iconic duo’s several musicals make for a sure-fire success. Orpheus Musical Theatre’s latest offering of Carousel (playing until June 9 at Centrepointe Theatre), however, places a heavy stress on the “almost.”

Carousel is the second collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein, premiering on Broadway in 1945. Revolutionary in terms of integrating music and spoken dialogue into unified scenes and the use of ballet and dance to forward the plot, Rodgers later stated Carousel to be his favourite of all his works. In 1999 Time Magazine named it the most important musical of the 20th century. The story concerns carnival barker Billy Bigelow and his ill-fated marriage to innocent Julie Jordan. After dying during a botched robbery attempt, Bigelow is given the chance to return to Earth for one day to restore hope to his widow and now-teenaged daughter.

The production is enjoyable to be sure, in parts even worthy of spine-tingling. Yet for all this show’s triumphs, there are strange choices here and there that detract from fully immersing oneself in one of musical theatre’s more emotionally moving pieces.

The acting is, for the most part, fairly decent – special praise to Brennan Richardson as Billy Bigelow, who brings great tough guy energy to the role, and has a rich singing voice to boot. For all this though, there is absolutely zero chemistry between Richardson and his Julie, played by Bianca Pietracupa. Pietracupa is appropriately demure, but sometimes her words are lost within her voice.

A major weakness with the acting in this production is a strange need to remain realistic, a style that often doesn’t gel well with a non-realistic form like American musical theatre. Bigelow’s death scene is a prime example of this: the actor’s attempts to keep a restrained acting style prevents the full emotion and gravity of what is happening to fully reach the audience.

After Bigelow’s death the show takes on a more surreal sense with a scene set “There,” a Purgatory of sorts. Once this aspect is added the scenes progress much more quickly and the tone of the acting finally matches up with the material, somewhat unfortunate since the Purgatory scene is halfway through Act II.

Billy and Julie’s daughter, Louise, has her story told mostly through ballet in a sequence demonstrating how her father’s reputation as a thief has haunted her and kept her from having a normal childhood by depriving her of friends. As Louise, Jasmine Lee brings not only stellar dance ability but a wonderfully clear focus in her characterization. Other standouts in the cast include Kodi Cannon as upright citizen Enoch Snow and Barb Seabright as jealous carousel owner Mrs. Mullin.

Jenn Donnelly’s set is a thing of beauty, the centrepiece of which is the titular carousel apparently made out of dock wood, which comes together in three pieces and spins onstage. Somewhat puzzling is the need to have a piece of the carousel onstage for nearly every scene, but all of that is forgotten in one of the final images of the show when Billy has successfully reached out to his widow and child and reverses the spin of the carousel, communicating the central theme of not letting one generation’s mistakes define the next.

The costumes, designed by Susan Cole and Diane Smith, are perfectly adequate with the exception of Mrs. Mullin’s costume, who for some reason is dressed in some sort of 19th century getup that stands out strangely from the rest.

The weaknesses in this show can probably be typified through the director’s note in the program. In it, Artistic Director J. Taylor Morris states, “I can’t say I have a particular love for Carousel… I can’t even say I have a particular love for musical theatre.” If this is the case, then perhaps it explains the discord between the acting style and the subject material and the overall sense of “almost” that pervades this production. Still, Richard Rogers’ sumptuous score is more than done justice by the orchestra and the final scene ends everything on a sweet note.

Although I wouldn’t call this show a very strong example of what classic musical theatre can be, it’s still important to see especially since Orpheus’ upcoming season consists of very recent shows, the oldest being Monty Python’s Spamalot (which opened onBroadway in 2005).