Between the opening of Carousel at the Lyric Opera House on Saturday and the Teen filled matinée on Tuesday, three gals I love saw the musical. There was the little girl I was when I first saw the musical starring Gordon McCrae and Shirley Jones in the film version of 1956 (not that year however!), the girl I grew into who watched it on Saturday, and then, the teen girl who I have the pleasure of raising who saw it with her class.
In 1945, the creative team of Rogers and Hammerstein adapted the play, Liliom, into a musical. There were difficulties – the playwright, Ferenc Molnar had refused up until then to have his play changed and that backers felt the ending of the play was just too sad for a musical. The team persevered and created what is considered by many to be the greatest musical of the 20th Century. But, how does it fare in the 21st?
The film version has played over and over again for decades, making sure that the songs, “If I Loved You“, “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” have become a part of the American lexicon – being performed at 8th grade ceremonies, high school productions, church choirs, and as lullabies to the small ones – all over the country. Nearly everyone has a memory of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at the very least. But the rest of the story? Do we remember it?
A carnival Barker, who is a bit handsy with the patrons and the owner of the Carousel, is let go from his job, sweet talks a pretty young thing – one he had been a bit handsy with earlier – and somehow they marry. She works hard, he, hardly, and then! The slap. One. One slap. And the whole town is abuzz with gossip of how he beats her. And just as we are thinking this might be the end of them, she tells him of their child on the way. His tune changes. He’s got to be responsible for this new life. And so, he goes to pull a heist with the community knockabout. The heist does not go well and instead of being captured by the police he takes his life by jumping from a roof. But it is not his end. We find him in the next scene in Limbo or Purgatory.
We are told that he has gone through the back way and therefore he will not see the Pearlie Gates. He is made an offer to do one good thing on earth – he’ll have a day to do so – and, if he is able to do so, he can ascend to heaven.
The carnival barker Billy Bigelow, is played with spunk by Steven Pasquale and his love, Julie Jordan is played by Laura Osnes. Jenn Gambatese plays Julie’s friend, Carrie Pipperidge. Ms. Gambese’s crystal voice rings true in the very first song of the evening. All three are well known faces on the cabaret stages of New York and on Broadway. If network television is still your friend, then you will also know Pasquale and Gambese from “The Good Wife”.
Most of the performers are musical theater artists except for mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves who plays Nettie Fowler. Chicago audiences were treated to the brilliance of Ms. Graves in the title roles in “Carmen” and “Samson et Dalila” on the same stage. Though her voice was at its best singing, “You’ll Never walk Alone” and “Spring is Busting Out All Over”, her vocal performance seemed out of place amid the musical theater voices surrounding her. She was an aural treat, she just didn’t fit with the rest of the sound and that was an injustice – to both Ms. Graves and her fans.
The Carousel owner, Mrs. Mullin, is played by Charlotte D’Amboise, a two-time Tony winner and dancer extraordinaire. The lovely thing about seeing her in this role, is that her father, Jacques D’Amboise choreographed the film version in 1956. They both continue to give back to community by creating Arts Camps.
Paolo Ventura did the set design and he did not disappoint! Known chiefly as a fine art photographer, he makes his theatrical debut with this production. Seemingly simple at first look, the visual world that he creates takes on a whimsicality that is hard to resist. When you go, please make sure to spend time with his framed sketches and miniatures on the lower level – it is like visiting a lovely gallery in Milan.
So, the little girl who is left in me enjoyed the nostalgia of remembering these songs, though the grown gal in me felt at times that the musical was so very dated, so many steps behind the times. But just as I started to feel that way, I would get caught up in its inherent charm – the same charm that has made Carousel a favorite work for nearly 65 years. The answer would really come from my fifteen year old. Asked how she liked it the performance and her response was, “…well, I was confused by the gender inequality issues, but when the one woman sang about sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re bad (the men), I guess it wasn’t all that different from today. It did make me a little sad though, but I liked it and didn’t need my Nintendo once”. Any musical that allows a teen to be engaged and not want to dive into their tech toys is fine with me.
Carousel runs until May 3 at Lyric Opera of Chicago