By Barry Reszel
Lyric Opera of Chicago takes patrons on an epic carnival ride this Spring with a resplendent production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel that evokes fears and thrills of a roller coaster far more than that of any mere merry-go-round.
This darkest entry of the R&H canon, the vaunted composer/lyricist duo’s second musical (Oklahoma! was first), teams romance with pathos, humor with violence and clambakes with death. It’s wrapped in a score that at Lyric soars and stabs from a world class 37-member orchestra and top stage talent.
Carousel is not the right choice for a young person’s introduction to musical theatre, but the not-often-produced, some say “masterpiece,” needs to be on every aficionado’s must-see list. And it’s this 2015 spectacle production that ought to be seen.
Directed and choreographed by theatrical Midas Rob Ashford, Lyric’s Carousel, like its male lead, is big, dark and brooding. It’s loaded with Broadway headliners and supported by an ensemble seemingly cast from Who’s Who of Chicagoland Musical Theatre Performers. There’s rampant speculation Ashford’s Chicago production is a precursor to a Broadway booking, and with a resume like his (see it here), there’s little doubt June could be bustin’ out all over the Great White Way in the near future.
But through May 3, at least, this Carousel ride is all Chicago’s.
Based on Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 drama, Liliom, Carousel is the story of a handsome New England carnival barker with anger problems, Billy Bigelow, who falls for, marries then hits his confident, independent townie sweetheart, Julie Jordan. News of Julie’s pregnancy convinces Billy to join a plot to rob a wealthy businessman so Billy can have money for the baby. When the plot fails, Billy dies, ascends into the afterlife and is given one day to right his earthly wrongs, which he does…mostly. A complete story synopsis and production history is found here.
Edgy in 1945 is even more so in 2015. The script’s at-best unresolved and at-worst acceptance of what we now call domestic violence or gender abuse is and should be problematic. Even heaven-sent, right-your-wrongs Billy slaps his teenage daughter, Louise, after which she shares this exchange with her mother:
Louise: But is it possible, Mother, for someone to hit you hard like that, real loud and hard, and not hurt you at all?
Julie: It is possible, dear…for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.
While patrons shouldn’t easily forgive this neanderthalic treatment of a critical societal issue with which we still grapple (remember the NFL draft is in Chicago during Carousel‘s run), all will do well to let this sad anachronistic treatment be a starting point for meaningful discussion without taking away from unbridled enthusiasm at the talent that tells this story.
Fresh from his starring role in Broadway’s The Bridges of Madison County, Steven Pasquale as carnival barker heartthrob Billy is broodingly sexy with a heavenly voice. Tony nominee Laura Osnes leaves Cinderella behind in her freshly swept wake with a portrayal of Julie Jordan that’s serious, stunning and entirely unforgettable. Together, their “If I Loved You,” among the most memorable songs in a deep score, is true perfection.
Jenn Gambatese, who last year astonished Lyric audiences with her portrayal of Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music, is back in Chicago as Julie’s best friend, Carrie Pipperidge. Moving from smitten young girlfriend to mature mother, Gambatese manages the transition with ease, wowing patrons with her gorgeous voice in “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan;” “Mr. Snow;” and “When the Children are Asleep.” The last is sung with beau Enoch Snow, portrayed by the terrifically talented Matthew Hydzik, the most recent Tony in West Side Story on Broadway
As Louise, the magnificent ballerina Abigail Simon simply stuns. Her Act 2 ballet may be the single most breathtaking scene in a production full of them, particularly the portion with Martin Harvey‘s Carnival Boy.
Boardinghouse keeper Nettie Fowler has one task in Carousel: to deliver an unforgettable rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Denyce Graves‘ entry is akin to Whitney Houston’s of the National Anthem in 1991. Listen to Houston here. To hear Graves, buy a ticket.
Broadway’s Jarrod Emick is terrific as smarmy convict Jigger Craigin. Longtime triple threat Charlotte D’Amboise, most recently seen in Broadway’s Pippin, is wonderful as the lecherous, aging carnival marm, Mrs. Mullins.
And then there’s the ensemble of 60 who overwhelm in the choral numbers “June is Busting Out All Over” and “A Real Nice Clambake,” among others. Like many shows gracing Chicagoland stages, when there’s luxury to cast stars in their own right as members of the ensemble, the result is incredible singing and dancing.
Ashford’s Carousel, reset from the original’s 1837 to the late 1930s, takes on an ever-present post-Depression pall. These New Englanders are serious and deep; their post-opera dance breaks are to die for. If there’s a nit, it would help to use the Opera House’s generous stage height to greater advantage, particularly in the all-cast numbers.
Sets created by Paolo Ventura in his theatrical debut are enormous and lavish. Again, some differently leveled cast spaces would be appreciated, but overall the look, along with Neil Austin‘s dim lighting and Catherine Zuber’s period costumes are spot-on. Conductor David Chase and the Lyric’s full orchestra do proper homage to Richard Rodgers‘ unforgettable score.
This is the third Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to be presented as part of Lyric’s American Musical Theater Initiative. The King and I and South Pacific follow in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, respectively. Past productions were Oklahoma! in the 2012-13 season last season’s The Sound of Music.
But this year, the invitation is to take a ride on one roller coaster of a Carousel. It’s time to RSVP, “Yes!”
“Carousel” is presented through May 3 by Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Tickets start at $29 and are available online here or by phone at 312-332-2244.