NORFOLK, Va., May 15, 2013 – The Virginia Opera opened its rousing, energetic spring production of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s classic musical “Carousel” last weekend at Norfolk’s Harrison Opera House. Running through May 19, the current performances, presented in conjunction with the 2013 Virginia Arts Festival, mark the revival of the company’s well-received 1996 production.
“Carousel” marked the triumphal return of the still-new Broadway team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II after their initial groundbreaking musical, “Oklahoma,” swept both Broadway and the country by storm. Their new production carried with it the virtually operatic values of integrating plot, character, and music in a single dramatic continuity. However, “Carousel” is a significantly darker show, burdened, perhaps, by the weight of the tragedy of World War II, which was in its final innings in 1945, the year the new musical debuted.
The plot of “Carousel” was largely borrowed from Hungarian-American dramatist Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play “Liliom,” a rather strange, darkly comedic vehicle that charts the decline, fall, and near-redemption of the eponymous, twitchy title character. Liliom is a handsome but violence-prone carny barker who falls in love with and marries an innocent housemaid, Julie, with whom he promptly has a child. Fired by his employer, who owns the carousel where he works in the carnival, both he and Julie fall into a hopeless cycle of poverty.
After striking Julie in a fit of helpless rage, Liliom, who actually has no marketable job skills, vows to save his family by allowing himself to get roped into a robbery plot. But when it fails he commits suicide. In the afterlife, he’s allowed a single day to return to earth as an invisible spirit in order to redeem himself with a good deed on behalf of his now-teenage daughter. But in the play, it’s not clear that he will succeed.
After lengthy negotiations with the playwright, Rodgers and Hammerstein were finally given the right to recast Molnár’s still well-known play as a musical, although they adapted its locale to the U.S., placing it in an 1870s Maine fishing village and changing the names of some of the characters, among them Liliom—now carousel barker Billy Bigelow—and a pair of secondary lovers, Marie and Wolf Beifeld who became the Snows. Further, without offending the playwright, Rodgers contrived to generate a more hopeful ending for the musical, rightly guessing that American audiences wouldn’t accept Molnár’s downbeat original ending.
After considerable reworking during its tryouts, “Carousel” opened to stunned but positive reviews in New York by critics and audiences alike. Like “Oklahoma” but more so, the plot’s darker elements were still daring in the genre of musical theater at the time. But “Carousel’s” bright, all-too-human characters and brilliant, memorable songs combined to put the production over the top. The show remains popular today, although it’s less frequently revived than Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s other hit shows like “Oklahoma” and “South Pacific.”
Directed and choreographed by Greg Ganakas, who also helmed Virginia Opera’s original “Carousel,” the company’s current iteration of the show is an exciting, visually stunning production that’s loaded with energy and emotion and highlighted by a mixed cast of Broadway and opera singers who are somehow able to blend their distinctive vocal styles into a seamlessly flowing, first rate presentation.
Smooth and endlessly flexible operatic baritone Matthew Worth, the surprising star of the Virginia Opera’s sneak hit “Orphée” last season, firmly anchors the company’s current production as a nasty, abrasive, yet oddly touching Billy Bigelow. Complete with a believable Maine accent, Mr. Worth’s incredibly expressive voice easily persuades us of the romantic side of Billy’s character, hidden inside his defensive persona but longing to be released, giving his interpretation of one of this show’s signature songs, “If I Loved You,” a genuine poignancy.
As his much put-upon young girlfriend and eventual wife, Julie Jordan, versatile Broadway singer Patricia Noonan is Mr. Worth’s perfect counterpart. Attractive and quietly passionate, Ms. Noonan’s Julie remains faithful to her marriage and to her memories, offering genuine redemption to Billy’s departed spirit should he choose to accept it. Her duets with Mr. Worth are among the high points of this production.
As “Carousel’s” Couple No. 2, Carrie Pipperidge and her soon-to-be-husband, fisherman Enoch Snow, Lora Lee Gayer and Paul Castree were delightful in roles that offered a comic-relief counterpart to the more tragic romance of Julie and Billy. Ms. Pipperidge got maximum mileage out of her amusing song, “When I Marry Mr. Snow,” and Mr. Castree proved extraordinarily amusing as a smarter-than-he-looks working stiff. Mr. Castree’s voice seemed a bit strained during Friday’s opening performance, however, possibly impaired by the effects of Virginia’s notorious high-allergy season, which is still upon us.
As boarding house owner Nettie Fowler, Norfolk native Sherry Boone was superb, anchoring another of this show’s famous tunes, “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” through its extended development and really displaying her operatic skills in her incredibly moving introduction of “Carousel’s” memorable, hymn like signature song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
The show’s remaining key characters added to the depth of this production, including Colleen Fitzpatrick as Billy’s eminently dislikeable former employer Mrs. Mullin; Sean Cooper’s dastardly villain, Jigger Craigin; and Ronn Carroll who played the heavenly “Starkeeper” like an ethereal spirit right out of the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” An added plus: this production’s lively chorus, whose singers and dancers kept things lively at all times.
Erhard Rom’s active, colorful sets and props lent a genuine sense of motion and carnival festivity to this production, particularly during the opening montage, and the show’s authentic period costuming selections added significantly to his vision.
Choreography, also by sure-handed director Greg Ganakas, was spare but easy-going and precisely to the point.
Adam Turner also did a marvelous job of leading the company’s orchestra in an almost perfectly calibrated counterpoint to the company’s singers. The orchestra really had a chance to shine in Act II’s extended ballet sequence as well as in a modified version of this show’s memorable “Carousel Waltz.”
The original waltz marked an unusual departure from the usual Broadway-style overture. A single, extended, rather complex carnival style dance tune, the waltz allowed for a brief opening pantomime that set the scene for this play’s underlying theme that life itself is like a revolving carousel. The waltz was augmented and extended to provide a more wide-ranging tableau for this production. While this might be a bit nettlesome for purists, and while it’s not entirely successful as music, it does add a somewhat more operatic importance to the current production.
Our only critical note on this production was the sometimes-spotty amplification that occasionally lent an uneven feeling to the singing. We’re already on record as detesting microphones in purely operatic productions. But the fact is, the earliest Broadway-style productions also either used microphones sparingly or not at all.
Washington National Opera employed very minimal amplification during its opening performances of “Show Boat” at the Kennedy-Center, with this minimalist approach providing perhaps the best compromise of old and new. Virginia Opera’s system could use a little fine-tuning, which it’s hopefully getting for this weekend’s performances. Most audience members, we suspect, won’t see a problem with the amplification, however.
Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)
Performances of “Carousel” continue this weekend and next at the Harrison Opera House, 160 E. Virginia Beach Blvd., Norfolk, Virginia. For tickets, directions, and information, check out the Virginia Opera website.
Note: In a likely unintentional coincidence, the Kennedy Center is mounting a production of Ferenc Molnár’s stage play “The Guardsman” later this month (May 25-June 23) at the Eisenhower Theater. For tickets and further information, click this Kennedy Center link.
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