Carousel is so familiar to most of us that we tend to forget the musical's true genius. First produced on Broadway in 1945, it represents the melding of two very different sensibilities -- that of Ferenc Molnár, the Hungarian novelist and playwright who wrote Liliom, which Carousel is based on, and the vision of the extraordinary musical-comedy team of Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers, who also created such shows as Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The King and I. The two were among the first musical-comedy writers to weave serious, sometimes upsetting themes through their cascades of song and dance.
Still, it's definitely the songs that matter, and Rodgers is responsible for some of the best, including several of the finest popular love songs of the century. Think of "Something Wonderful" from The King and I, South Pacific's "Some Enchanted Evening" and Julie Jordan singing "If I Loved You" to her wild carnival barker, Billy Bigelow, in Carousel. In the Boulder Dinner Theatre production, Rodgers's songs are well served by several talented singers. Alicia King, as Nettie Fowler, rises entirely to the occasion as "You'll Never Walk Alone" moves steadily higher and higher up the register; Joanie Brosseau-Beyette as Carrie Pipperidge brings energy and humor to tunes such as "Mister Snow"; and Scott Beyette (Jigger Craigin), with a chorus of men, gives a rousing rendition of "Stonecutters Cut It on Stone" -- the quintessential tribute to the sexy bad boy. As Billy, Wayne Kennedy delivers a breathless, excited paean to his unborn child that is profoundly moving; as Julie, Shelley Cox-Robie not only sings with grace and beauty, but brings a quiet dignity to the role that grounds the entire production.
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Shorn of its lyricism, Carousel is a bleak story about a battering relationship. Out of work and desperate, Billy Bigelow beats his wife, Julie. When he learns she is pregnant, he signs onto a half-baked robbery scheme that ends in his death. He's granted a return to earth by a heavenly figure and discovers that his daughter, now sixteen, is a bitter outcast headed for a life very like his own. He attempts to connect with her, fails, and again lashes out in anger. The last scene, celebrating the redemptive power of love, is more comforting than plausible.
The feminist movement might not have been fully established when Carousel was first produced, but the script does carry some moments of genuinely modern insight. Julie forgives and romanticizes Billy's violence, but despite this -- and despite the somewhat mocking treatment of dull, dependable Mr. Snow (a solid performance by Steven Cogswell), whom the play sets up as a deliberate foil and counter to Billy -- the rest of the community knows better. So, it turns out, do the angels. (Like many a contemporary batterer, Billy persists in his denials -- in his case, even after death: "I couldn't hit her," he tells one heavenly soul.)
Boulder Dinner Theatre, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder
Through October 28, 303-449-6000
Director Ross Haley stages Carousel with an engaging energy, though one could wish for more finesse, more attention to the shadow and sunlight of the script. The dance between Louise (sixteen-year-old Rae Leigh Klapperich) and her carnival boy (Scott Beyette) has been choreographed in the past by such luminaries as Agnes DeMille and Kenneth MacMillan. Here it's staged with no feeling at all for movement or line. It's hard to believe these two lithe and appealing dancers couldn't have been given something more expressive. There's a lot of hamming. Brosseau-Beyette mars an otherwise charming performance with some over-the-top posing and giggling; Bren Eyestone Barron (Mrs. Mullin) is much more interesting on her second entrance, when she's calmed down a little, than on her first, which consists of almost uninterrupted yelling. Alicia King resists the general trend, with a calm, kindly portrayal of Nettie, and her singing after Billy's death, when Julie's attempts at song have been silenced by grief, brings tears.
Wayne Kennedy plays against type, giving the usually charismatic and cocky young Billy Bigelow a nervous laugh and an inexplicable Sopranos-style accent, employing a deliberate clumsiness in his courting of Julie. (Unfortunately, there's little electricity between these two principals.) This portrayal isn't entirely successful. But by the time he's singing about "My Boy Bill" -- full out, completely vulnerable, leapfrogging between terror and joy -- he's won the audience over completely. It's impossible not to exit humming.