By: Adam Buchsbaum
In the age of Hamilton, Book of Mormon, and unasked movie-to-stage adaptations (here’s looking at you, Spiderman), the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel is positively quaint. Synchronized dance, lush orchestral scores and even a song extolling the merits of a clambake hit the stage. But there’s something endearing and enduring about this kind of old-school musical—its sincerity, its deeply felt emotions—that make it worth your time. The Musical Theatre West’s production is classic and clean, with a clear-eyed cast of talented performers and elegant stagecraft.
Based off an obscure 1909 Hungarian play Liliom, Carousel follows the swift romance, tragic fallout and chance for redemption in the unlikely relationship between a self-loathing carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Doug Carpenter) and the ingénue mill worker Julie Jordan (Amanda Leigh Jerry). After a chance romantic evening, they embark on a marriage that will prove rocky, testing their expectations for one another. A secondary plot line following Julie’s friend Carrie (Amanda Hootman) and her fisherman husband Enoch Snow (Justin Cowden) acts as a much-needed foil to the main love story.
The lavish, waltz-like “Carousel Waltz” ushers us into the story. You recall the pleasure of hearing a live orchestra as you watch the wordless montage of events begin the musical. You notice the private flicker of romance emerge between Billy and Julie at the extravagant carousel, as it spins endlessly, almost madly. It’s really a lovely sequence as the performers and the settings quickly move in and out of space and time, quickly setting the scene and immersing you in the musical.
Well, you can’t have an entirely wordless musical or it becomes a ballet– though Rodgers and Hammerstein manage to sneak a beautiful ballet sequence into the second act. Invariably, we snap back to reality for the so-called “bench scene” and one of the play’s main themes, the famed “If I Loved You.” While our culture has come to associate ‘40s and ‘50s pop culture with, depending on who you ask, an oppressive or nostalgic optimism, Carousel is not that shallow or reductive.
The “If I Loved You” scene teeters between love and feigned apathy in one of the best scenes, a ripe showcase for actors Carpenter (as Billy) and Jerry (as Julie) to confess each other’s mixed feelings. It’s a deeply affecting moment, and the song would not be out of place in La La Land in a different world. Poignancy aside, it’s also worth singling out the deft comedy from Cowden as Mr. Snow in his Mr. Collins-esque role, the twisted humor of Jeff Skowron as Jigger, that wretched hive of scum and villainy, and Hootman as Carrie in her chirpy BFF ways. Carousel hits the tragic and dramatic notes hard at times– especially as it spirals toward its unpredictable, It’s a Wonderful Life-lite end– but the musical is, thankfully, not humorless.
There is one thorn in Carousel’s side, but it’s not necessarily the production’s fault. Its plot risks apologizing for male-on-female domestic violence in a troubling way for the average modern audience. Given the original’s creation in 1945, and how weaved this is into a key story juncture for the musical, it’s a tough thorn to accommodate. Musical Theatre West smartly injects moments both serious and playful in its actor’s directions (gamely done when Cowden and Hootman sing “When the Children Are Asleep”) to suggest that women in Carousel’s world have agency as an antidote to the troubling gender politics. I suggest audiences not take depiction as necessarily endorsement, or at least fairly contextualize the musical to the ‘40s. Have a discussion. It’s a small note that need not spoil the larger musical. Musical Theatre West’s production is a well-cast, classic take on Rodgers and Hammerstein and worth a weekend out.
Carousel continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E Atherton St., through April 9, with shows Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6pm. Tickets are $17-$95. For reservations and information, call (562) 856-1999, ext. 4, or visit musical.org.