Carousel. Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II, based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnar. Directed by Julianne Boyd.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Iíll give her a slap on the jaw."
Carrie (2nd from left) and Julie (4th from left) with the women; photo: Kevin Sprague
Early in the musical, Carousel, the romantic leading man - Billy Bigelow - explains his theory of handling a woman. "Iíll give her a slap on the jaw," he says. Itís said as a somewhat charming antidote to the curious sweetness of Julie Jordan, the young woman he is talking to about his affairs. It is meant to surprise her and any other person listening including the hundreds in the unseen audience. It is also meant to be forgotten.
In this new production at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, MA, itís a statement that never quite goes away. We are reminded of it midway through the first act when he actually does slap Julie, a gesture that is instantly blown out of proportion by friends and neighbors, gossips who elevate the angry gesture into wife-beating. Later it has a different resonance when their daughter is slapped in the same way out of the same level of frustration. It is an act that defines Billy more than any other.
If the Billy is drop-dead gorgeous the gesture becomes one of self-sacrifice for the girls. In this production the actor playing this man is not a stunningly handsome man and his hard-to-control anger takes on a different sort of significance. It becomes a symbol of inner rage at his own shortcomings which are only exposed when he allows himself to love someone; that feeling requires a slap on the jaw and this Billy is more human for it.
Director Julianne Boyd has taken on a challenge in opening her main stage season with this show. It is operatic in its lengthy musical sequences, each of which leads through a series of melodic recitative to a hit song. It is also operatic in its emotional scope that can easily be played over the top. It also is a revelatory piece about the dynamics of a small but populated fishing village in New England and so it requires a multitude of actors who can also sing and dance. Boyd has had the luck to cast the most interesting people who now temporarily inhabit the Berkshires.
It is also a curious time for this show to be on our local boards. A carousel project in Pittsfield is underway with new hand-carved horses being created by teams of local citizen. This carousel is expected to aid in the restoration of the city of Pittsfield to its former place as the true center of the region. In her staging of the opening pantomime sequence of the show, Boyd celebrates that new creation in her own particular way and it is most effective for both the show and its host city.
Billy is played by the rugged and interesting Aaron Ramey. His baritone voice is perfect for Billy. He handles the Soliloquy, in which Billy fantasizes about his pregnant wifeís child, with strength, charm and drama. Billy only has three moments of music in this production as his second act song "The Highest Judge of All" is not being used in this production. Ramey makes the most of his opportunities and comes out a winner.
Julie is portrayed by Patricia Noonan, a young woman whose smile could melt asphalt. Her performance is especially keyed to her portrait of love. This character comes with a disclaimer: she has no desire to marry. No one ever speaks of her wedding and until late in the show no one every speaks of her emotions, her love for Billy. It is not clear that she has ever married him, but she lives with him, carries his child and uses his name, so we must assume that a wedding took place somehow. Written in 1945 marriage had to be mentioned, but in todayís world that isnít necessary. Noonanís Julie seems very much the free-spirited, unwed partner of the difficult man she admits to loving in their final scene together, at his death. She plays all of this beautifully.
Her best friend, Carrie Pipperidge is perfectly performed by Sara Jean Ford. Her romance with Mr. Snow steals away so much of the concentration of the audience that it almost transforms the show into her story with Julie and Billyís love affair becoming a backdrop tale for contrast. This young lady sings and dances and act up a storm and her vis-a-vis, the Enoch Snow of Todd Buonopane, is her match in every way. Together they are a delicious couple. Even when he upbraids her with "Geraniums in the Winder" we know he loves her and her despair, which triggers another Rodgers and Hammerstein hit "Whatís the Use of Wondírin?" is laughingly right.
Christopher Innvarís villainous Jigger Craigin is an excellent characterization and Teri Ralstonís Nettie, who sings three more R&H hit songs including the anthem "Youíll Never Walk Alone," is magical. Mrs. Mullin, Billy's protector, is played well by Leslie Becker.
The magical-realism of the play happens in the second act when Billy dies and goes to heaven. The rest of the show is surreal as he returns to earth to finish his business there and make right what he left wrong. There is a curious morality in this section. His suicide after a bungled theft is corrected in his mind by his actual act of stealing something precious from heaven. How he makes that stupid act right is one of the beauties of this production. The starkeeper, played by Daniel Marcus and his 1st Heavenly Friend, played by Christy Morton, are cameos that will not be easily forgotten.
Louise, his daughter is sweetly performed by dancer/actor Kristen Paulicelli. Her ballet of anger, wishes and despair - closely based on the Agnes DeMille original with choreography by Joshua Bergasse - is lovely indeed.
The orchestra here is simply two pianos, not a sound that I find especially appealing. The difference made by a single additional instrument, a violin, in the "Blow High, Blow Low Hornpipe," was so spectacular that it only made me wish for more instruments. Boyd has answered that prayer in "A Real Nice Clambake." I wish there was more of that.
Set in the 1890s (instead of the 1870's original) the show is beautifully costumed by Holly Cain on a perfectly marvelous set designed by Robert Mark Morgan. Scott Pinkneyís lighting was effective and glowing although in the final scene I would have preferred some subtle highlighting of Julie and Louise.
When people think of the tragic musical, West Side Story comes to mind. However twelve years earlier there was Carousel and the imagistic parallels are spectacularly notable. One dead man, one grieving wife kneeling over him, one soprano singing an inspirational theme from a position of observing the romantic scene being played out center stage. As wonderful as "Somewhere" is from the later show, the simple honesty of "Youíll Never Walk Alone" in this musical is even more electric.
Director Julianne Boyd has made a new vision of a classic picture with this production. She has given the summer a kick-off that should spark discussions all over the region. This is a crowning achievement.
Patricia Noonan and Aaron Ramey as Julie and Billy; photo: Kevin Sprague
Todd Buonopane and Christopher Innvar as Mr. Snow and Jigger Craigin; photo: Kevin Sprague
Sara Jean Ford (Carrie) and Patrician Noonan; photo: Kevin Sprague
Al Blackstone and Kristen Paulicelli; photo: Kevin Sprague
Carousel plays through July 11 at Barrington Stage Companyís theater located at 30 Union Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Tickets range in price from $15 to $58. For schedules, availability and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or check on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.