United States Rodgers & Hammerstein, Carousel: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, David Chase (conductor). Civic Opera House, Chicago, IL, 24.4.2015 (DP)
Carrie Pipperidge: Jenn Gambatese
Julie Jordan: Laura Osnes
Mrs. Mullin: Charlotte d’Amboise
Billy Bigelow: Steven Pasquale
Nettie Fowler: Denyce Graves
Enoch Snow: Matthew Hydzik
Jigger Craggin: Jarrod Emick
Starkeeper: Tony Roberts
Louise: Abigail Simon
Carnival Boy: Martin Harvey
Conductor: David Chase
Director and Choreographer: Rob Ashford
Set Designer: Paolo Ventura
Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Sound Designer: Mark Grey
Chorus Master: Michael Black
Carousel was Richard Rodgers’s personal favorite of all the musicals he wrote, either with lyricist Lorenz Hart or with Oscar Hammerstein II. Together, Rodgers & Hammerstein spawned a new kind of musical drama with 1943’s Oklahoma!, in which every song advanced the story line and every dance was done in character. The line between music and drama was so magnificently blurred that one never knew when dialogue might turn into song, or when action would turn into dance.
In 1945 Carousel followed, developing even deeper characters and containing more much music. The “You’ll Never Walk Alone” ending was certainly more optimistic and uplifting than that of Molnár’s Liliom, upon which the show is based, but much of the play’s bleakness remained intact. (Supposedly Molnár not only approved of Carousel, but loved it.) Certainly the central character of Billy Bigelow was as earthy and tough as ever, even if he did have his more gentle moments.
In recent revivals and productions of Carousel, there has been a trend to be so bleak, so dark, and so “non-musical,” that you might think that you were watching Liliom—interrupted by music. In the new Lyric Opera production—the third entry in Lyric’s five-year, post-season Rogers & Hammerstein series—British director and choreographer Rob Ashford has decided to update the setting to the 1930s. Helped by Italian artist Paolo Ventura’s stylized and sleek designs—his first ever for the stage, and only filling a portion of the cavernous Civic Opera House—the New England setting (Budapest in the Molnár original) is given a distinctively European flavor.
Ashford leaves a refreshingly distinctive mark in his complete rethinking of the original Agnes de Mille choreography, resulting in something far more bawdy and sensual than was possible for a show set in the 1870s presented in the 1940s. By casting veteran dancer Charlotte d’Amboise (daughter of dancer Jacques d’Amboise, who appeared in the 1956 Carousel film) as a sexy Mrs. Mullin, Ashford makes clear—right from the “Carousel Waltz” pantomime—that she and Billy Bigelow are deeply intertwined in a Mrs. Robinson-type relationship. This adds a new dimension, explaining why Billy wrestles with returning to work as her carousel barker. And yet, Mullin remains a tantalizing and manipulative temptress, as d’Amboise’s compelling work indicates during the Act II fantasy ballet sequence, the true highlight of the show. Primary dancers Abigail Simon and Martin Harvey are compelling, leading a superb ensemble.
Of course, none of this would mean much dramatically if Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan were not in love, and on opening night at least, there were actually far more sparks coming from Billy and Mrs. Mullin than there were coming from Billy and Julie, played by Broadway veterans Steven Pasquale and Laura Osnes. In fact, on opening night, the “If I Loved You” duet was fairly well sung, though distractingly static and not helped by dreary tempos set by conductor David Chase, Ashford’s preferred music colleague who was making his Lyric Opera debut. (Chase’s cumbersome treatment of the show’s many waltzes was often stodgy enough that momentum would wane, causing the chorus and dancers to get ahead of the orchestra.) Revisiting the production midway into the run, there was already better chemistry between the ill-fated lovers—if still cool for what this show requires. Orchestral balances had improved but tempos were still turgid.
Pasquale’s Billy Bigelow felt very much like a work in progress, as if he were more of an annoying juvenile delinquent than a lost soul barely getting by on his good looks and charm. The trademark electric cigarette quickly lost its allure. By the time of Billy’s Act I finale “Soliloquy”—oversung as a power anthem opening night but calmer and more character-driven later—the effect seemed jolting, given that there had been little dramatic arc to or from that pivotal moment. Osnes’s Julie, who needs to be quirky and shy as written, came off as too confident.
Curiously, the often throwaway roles of the secondary couple, Carrie and Mr. Snow, are more fully illuminated. Carrie, played by Jenn Gambatese—last year’s Maria in Lyric’s The Sound of Music—is so much more interesting than Julie that it makes one wonder why Billy doesn’t go off with her. Matthew Hydzik’s Mr. Snow is a delightfully introspective mess, who compensates for his lack of confidence by coming up with big ideas rather than being merely a loud lout as he is often played. Hydzik also has a tenor voice ideal for the role.
The only bona fide opera star of the proceedings—odd for a major opera company—was mezzo soprano Denyce Graves as Nettie Fowler, who belted out “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and the show’s anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” with considerable aplomb, even if diction was sometimes sacrificed for sound. (Curiously, this was the first Lyric Rodgers & Hammerstein production with no supertitles, which became an issue given that spoken dialogue was often muddy.) In both songs, the effect was helped considerably by an excellent chorus prepared by Lyric’s chorus master, Michael Black.