When Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel (1945) opened on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre, their smash hit Oklahoma (1943), the team's first collaboration, was still running and breaking box-office records right across the street at the St. James. How do you top that? They did what they knew best: something completely different. Skillfully adapting their show from Frederic Molnar's dark drama Liliom, American musical theater's most innovative collaborators kept the Hungarian playwright's depression and fantasy, abetted with a more hopeful ending, and irrevocably changed the face of Broadway – again.
Carousel is more pulled together, more fully integrated, more musical than Oklahoma, and that's saying something. They dispense with the overture, starting the play right in the middle of the bustling action with an extended pantomime scene that introduces all the major characters, which sets the tone immediately and throws us right into the telling. That this opener is scored to one of Rodgers's most haunting and lush melodies, “The Carousel Waltz,” a merry-go-round gone mad with its diapason harmonies and chromatic climax, was designed not so much to startle the audience as it was to get the show going in the best possible dramatic way. It might be somewhat old hat these days since the team's innovations were universally copied forever after, but it's still a wondrous surprise when the curtain swoops open to reveal a carnival in full swing.
Carnival bad boy Billy (baritone Duncan Rock, solid and rock-like) exits the wagon of Mrs. Mullins (Helen Anker), widowed owner of the traveling circus, disheveled and smoking a cigarette. Anker, platinum blond like Harlow, adjusts her kimono and takes his cigarette. We know immediately what they've been up to. Around them, the New England mill town gawks at the exotic attractions. Girls are drawn to the allure of Billy, now attired in barker's mufti. He runs the carousel, a rather puny-looking affair considering it's one of the iconic stars of the show – the symbol of fun and freedom. (The mini carousel revolves, but the pale horses don't even move up and down. Small-town hicks wouldn't look twice at this colorless little machine. It makes much more of an impression when it appears in the dream sequence, brightened by lights, maneuvered by the chorus and given a Cabaret makeover. Throughout, designer Paolo Ventura gives the show the minimal, attractive look of a pop-up book.) But this carousel is certainly going to give young Julie (soprano Andrea Carroll) the ride of her life. She and Billy exchange wary glances as he lifts her up on a horse and puts his arm around her. Desire and a palpable sexual tension infuse the flowing pulse-of-life opening.
Continuing the growing trend of opera houses staging Broadway shows (Show Boat; A Little Night Music) basically to help the bottom line, Houston Grand Opera does all right by this co-production with Chicago Lyric Opera, but the heat left the fairground long ago. Rock, handsome, and Carroll, lush of voice, never catch up to their characters. There's not much chemistry at all; he hardly seems dangerous or irresponsible enough for feisty and independent Julie to lose her heart – and her job – for this lug. He's a much better fit for Mrs. Mullins, who in Anker's commanding interpretation is ready to eat him alive. Solo, Rock is commanding indeed. His famous “Soliloquy,” though momentarily marred under director Rob Ashford's intrusive set change, where Billy commits to fatherhood, is powerfully conveyed.
The secondary characters are somewhat better situated. Soprano Lauren Snouffer, as conventional hausfrau-to-be Carrie; tenor Alexander Lewis, as Carrie's fish redolent beau, Mr. Snow; baritone Ben Edquist, as criminal lowlife Jigger Craigin; and Stephanie Blythe, as neutral earth mother Nettie Fowler – privileged to sing the show's glorious anthem, “You'll Never Walk Alone” – all make more of an impression than the leads. The show's other showpiece is Act II's “Billy Makes a Journey,” the Big Ballet that was once a staple of any serious musical play. Agnes deMille choreographed the original, and here Ashford retains a taste of her atypical movement and expressionistic gesture in his own distinctive, if full of big ballet moves, Broadway style. Abigail Simon, as young Louise, and Marty Lawson, a veteran gypsy, as potential seducer, are mighty persuasive in dancing Louise's hardscrabble life.
If the heart of the show doesn't grab, there are always, forever, those songs! Using the original orchestrations by Don Walker and Robert Russell Bennett (that old pro is responsible for the iconic texture of “The Carousel Waltz”), these classics of the American Songbook sound resplendently alive and fresh: the love duet “If I Loved You”; the sensual choral “June is Bustin' Out All Over”; Carrie and Snow's “When the Children Are Asleep”; Jigger's rowdy “Blow High, Blow Low” and “There's Nothin' So Bad For a Woman”; and Julie's plaintive and resigned “What's the Use of Wond'rin'.” The songs are in fine vocal hands, even if under maestro Richard Bado, they, too, could use more oomph. These guys and dolls are going to a clambake, not a sewing bee.
This was Rodgers's favorite score, and it certainly sounds it. Because the themes are weighty – life, love, redemption – even the fun numbers are crafted with exquisite skill. Each is precise and fits nowhere else, helping move the piece inexorably forward or, usually, giving us more info than dialogue. We know these people by the songs they sing. Perhaps this seamless integration is the lasting legacy of R&H. Maybe not, though. These songs are in their own special pantheon.
Carousel continues on April 27, 29, 30; May 6, 7 at Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For more information, call 713-546-0200 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $18-$370.
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