Glimmerglass’s ‘Carousel’ goes round and round on the strength of its music, not visuals
Ryan McKinny crafts a formidable anti-hero in Billy Bigelow, and the cast of Glimmerglass Young Artists does justice to the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical
At first glance, setting Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár’s dark and depressing drama Liliom as musical theater hardly seems like a winning formula for making a hit on Broadway. But to paraphrase British playwright William Congreve, if only roughly, “music hath charms to soothe a savage story.”
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, the pair’s second musical theater collaboration that followed the smashing success of Oklahoma!, tells a macabre tale involving armed robbery, wife beating and suicide. But then, Richard Rodgers’s cheerful and buoyant music has more than enough charm to diffuse the “savagery” of the plot. Odds are you’ll be singing If I loved You when you leave the theater, not the blues.
The new Glimmerglass production, directed by Charles Newell, features veteran baritone Ryan McKinny in the title role of Billy Bigelow, along with a supporting troupe comprising mostly Glimmerglass Young Artists. Both receive strong support from a sizeable pit orchestra of well-prepared instrumentalists. But with its single-unit, economy-minded set and dimly lit staging effects, this production offers more for the ears than it does the eyes. Ultimately, it’s the music alone that spins this Carousel.
The plot, which Rodgers & Hammerstein transposed from Budapest to a New England fishing town during the last quarter of the 19th-century, centers around anti-hero Billy Bigelow — a slick carnival barker with a questionable past steeped in alcohol and loose women. Billy becomes infatuated with a naïve but fiercely independent millworker, Julie Jordan. The attraction is mutual, and the two quickly embark upon a complicated relationship culminating in marriage.
Unable to get a steady job, Billy withdraws from Julie and becomes increasingly frustrated. He beats his wife. When Julie tells him she’s pregnant Billy at first is excited, but soon laments that he has no means to support his family. Desperate, Billy turns to the town tough-guy, Jigger Craigin — a disagreeable character who convinces the vulnerable soon-to-be-father that armed robbery is the only fix to his problems. The robbery goes horribly bad, and faced with imminent capture and lengthy incarceration, Billy commits suicide.
Fast forward 15 years. Billy — having spent some time in Purgatory and now standing at the rear door of the Pearly Gates — is told that in order to pass on through to Heaven he will need to return to Earth, just for a day, to perform an act of goodness. Learning that his now-teenage daughter (Louise) is depressed, Billy returns to Earth to help guide her to a path of fulfillment.
Once there, he counsels and encourages Louise, but when she refuses to accept a gift he had brought her from Heaven, he strikes her. Louise curiously tells her mother that she dreamed her father hit her, but that the blow actually felt more like a kiss. Following that epiphany, Louise forgives her father and turns the corner towards a better and brighter future. As Billy prepares to return to the Pearly Gates, he turns to his widow (who cannot hear him but senses his presence) and whispers, “I loved you Julie. Know that I loved you.”
Securing the rights to Molnár’s gloomy play was not easy. The Hungarian dramatist had already turned down a request by Puccini to set this story to music, and later Kurt Weill as well. But after seeing Oklahoma!, Molnár agreed to allow Rodgers and Hammerstein to set the drama as musical theater. The final hurdle was convincing the playwright to allow Hammerstein to rewrite the dismal ending — in which the daughter is abandoned and ultimately doomed to a life of despair — into something more hopeful and palatable to the tastes of American audiences. Carousel opened on Broadway on April 19, 1945 to great acclaim.
It’s difficult for audiences to get past the battered-wife issue, and Newell offers no excuses. Neither does Billy. His character is laid bare for all to see, with all its blemishes and ugliness. Like The Picture of Dorian Gray, Billy turns increasingly ugly as he comes unglued, morphing into a repulsive excuse for a human being. At the same time, in spite of this man’s poor choices we are strangely reluctant to condemn him to Hell — either here on Earth or in the afterlife.
With his muscular build and gritty five-o’clock shadow, McKinny is a good fit for the role of Billy Bigelow. His virility shines through the costumes, even the most slovenly of them, and his character’s popularity with the ladies is never in question. (When his late-middle-aged boss Mrs. Mullin orders Julie to stay away from her property, there’s little doubt she means Billy.)
Beyond the looks, McKinny has a good grasp of what makes his character tick. He projects Billy’s carefree spirit and independence from the very start, and makes it clear that his sudden infatuation with Julie is more of a novelty than it is a case of “love at first sight.”
While McKinny crafts a largely unsympathetic character whose selfish behavior does not endear him to the audience, he never comes off as truly evil. He doesn’t mislead Julie as to the kind of person he is: What you see is what you get. (And for whatever reason, Julie chooses to hitch her wagon to this loser.) If the jury is still out on whether Billy is worthy of redemption, credit McKinny for creating reasonable doubt.
McKinny’s voice was not in top form Friday evening. Though firm in its lower range, his baritone (which delighted my ears last season in The Flying Dutchman) appeared a bit hoarse in the upper register, and he treaded lightly on the high notes in his lengthy soliloquy at the close of act one. Nothing, however, can detract from the anima McKinny injects into his character. His is a formidable Billy Bigelow, to be sure.
Young Artist Andrea Carroll crafts a rather stoic Julie Jordan who has sufficient looks and youthful enthusiasm to generate the necessary chemistry with McKinny. The pronounced height differential between McKinny and Carroll actually worked to their advantage: She would look into his eyes at an almost 45-degree angle in much the same manner Vivien Leigh looked up at Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind.
Carroll wisely keeps the romance from reaching the threshold of infatuation and maintains an emotional distance, as well. Though her character tolerates physical abuse, she is too headstrong and independent to be emotionally intimidated. Carroll ultimately draws both sympathy and admiration from the audience. Here is a woman who made her bed and is now bound by an unwritten code to sleep in it, whatever the cost. We respect her determination, courage and strength, although it pains us to see this woman remain in an abusive relationship.
Carroll’s easygoing soprano is well suited to musical theater, with a lightness of timbre that at times borders on soubrette. Though I wished she had projected better in the low and middle registers in her signature number If I Loved You, Carroll’s tender ballad What’s The Use of Wond’rin? was lovely through and through.
As Carrie Pipperidge, Julie’s friend and confidante, Sharin Apostolou delivered an impressively convincing and consistent effort both as a singer and actor. The Greco-American soprano, who returns this year as a Glimmerglass Young Artist, has a voice well suited both to opera and musical theater. Her performance throughout the evening was delightful and engaging.
Unlike the fiesty Julie Jordan, Apostolou’s character is a docile, “plain Jane” gal perfectly content to let her man (Enoch Snow, played by Joe Shadday) make the decisions in her life.
Apostolou found the right balance of sweetness, effervescence and wholesomeness in When I Marry Mister Snow, and although she had an occasional tendency to fall behind the beat of the orchestral accompaniment, her vibrant and richly colored vocal timbre worked wonders in the duet ensemble numbers You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan and When the Children Are Asleep.
Apostolou is a consummate actor as well, using virtually every part of her body — facial expressions, arms, legs — to bring her character to life.
Glimmerglass Young Artist Ben Edquist, as the baddest person on the block, Jigger Craigin, has the looks and mannerisms of a Boston Southie when we first see him in act one — though his weird accent places him much closer to Brooklyn’s Little Italy. Actually, Edquist’s Italian inflections (ostensibly unintended) inject a bit of levity to the role. When Billy announces he will soon be a father and Jigger replies “Yeah, my muddah had a baby once,” I thought I was watching an episode of The Sopranos. Edquist’s baritone, pleasant though somewhat lacking in resonance, easily cut through the chorus of sailors in the handsomely staged, Blow High, Blow Low (“The Hornpipe”).
As Carrie’s love interest, Enoch Snow, tenor Joe Shadday (another Glimmerglass Young Artist) portrayed his character as a big, lovable oaf. Shadday cuts a large figure onstage, and from the size of his frame one might expect the hefty resonance of a bass-baritone. Surprise: It’s an Irish tenor. And a good one, at that. Shadday’s supple voice is flexible and pleasant. His duet with Apostolou in When the Children Are Asleep was charming, and his smooth and pliant legato throughout the wide-intervals of his solo number Geraniums in the Winder was impressive.
In the non-singing role of the randy and manipulative carnival owner, Mrs. Mullin, professional actor Rebecca Finnegan added a much-needed dose of experienced theatrical savvy to the production comprising so many young singer-actors.
The chorus of townsfolk and seafarers sang and moved about the stage handsomely, although there were at this early stage of the run a few rough edges in the synchronization of dance numbers June is Bustin’ Out All Over and The Hornpipe. For the most part, however, these Young Artists performed admirably, with any wrinkles likely to be ironed out as the run continues.
For all its wonderful music (Richard Rodgers considered Carousel his favorite collaboration), Carousel is also a visual experience — and this is where I feel the production falls short. The single-unit set designed by John Culbert grew tiresome by the second act and Mark McCullough’s darkly colored lighting effects, favoring purple and dark red hues, seemed an unlikely complement to Rodgers’s brightly colored and effervescent musical score. Relief came at the hands of Daniel Pelzig, whose choreography in the splendid second act pas de deux — with Glimmerglass Young Artists Carolina Villaraos (Julie) and Andrew Harper (the Carnival Boy) — proved a delightful viewing experience.
I was also disappointed with the show’s signature song, You’ll Never Walk Alone. Written in the manner of a hymn, with powerful emotional and inspirational underpinnings, this song customarily begins softly and then crescendos to a glorious climax that sends a message of hope for all who have experienced the loss of a loved one. This is a number well-known to many, performed countless times by the likes of Judy Garland, Aretha Franklin, Placido Domingo, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and yes, Elvis. But Deborah Nansteel, who plays the matronly soul of the community, Nettie Fowler, was a bit too understated in her delivery.
A pit version Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra, under the direction of the Doug Peck, did justice to Rodgers’s colorful musical score. The famous carnival waltz theme first heard in opening Prologue bubbled over with each new refrain, and the song accompaniments were invariably alert and perky. The addition of a harp — a must for the inspirational You’ll Never Walk Alone — added a touch of class to the performance.
Prior to the start of the Friday’s performance, Glimmerglass Festival Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello announced the presence of two distinguished guests: Richard Rodger’s granddaughter, Constance (Kim) Peck Beaty, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The show came to a dead stop midway through the second act when the audience broke into uncontrollable laughter after Jigger asks Billy, “Never been before a Supreme Court Justice,” have ‘ya?”
What: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel
Performance reviewed: July 18, 2014
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: About two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $10 to $144 (discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1, 14, 22; 1:30 p.m. July 26, 27, Aug, 4, 10, 12, 16, 19