By the Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Dan Zeff
Chicago - “Carousel,” being a classic of the American musical theater, can triumph with even a mundane professional production on the strength of the Rodgers and Hammerstein score alone. So the revival of the show by the Lyric Opera of Chicago is worth seeing, but idolaters of the musical should be prepared for some disappointment at the lackluster quality of much of the staging.
“Carousel” is the third entry in a five season series of Rodgers and Hammerstein hits presented by the Lyric, with “Oklahoma” and “The Sound of Music” behind and “The King and I” and “South Pacific” ahead.
The Lyric does give the show the full opera treatment, with a huge cast, a large orchestra, and an opera length of just under three hours. The musical is the Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptation of the Hungarian play “Liliom,” transported from Budapest in 1921 to a fishing town in New England from 1873 to 1888. The story follows the troubled love affair between a local mill worker named Julie Jordan and a swaggering carnival barker named Billy Bigelow. There is lots of local color in the storytelling, which ends on a note of “Our Town” type fantasy. This is a romantic musical of deceptive simplicity, a throwback more to the operettas of the earlier 1900’s than to the cutting edge musicals that were starting to pop up at midcentury (“Carousel” opened in 1945).
Rodgers and Hammerstein music is triumphant, a roll call of hits that starts
with the wonderful Carousel Waltz that opens the show through “If I Loved You,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All
Over,” “What’s the Use of Wondrin,” and that all-time tearjerker “You’ll Never
Walk Alone.” Even the less familiar numbers work beautifully within the
framework of the story.
The Lyric has brought in Rob Ashford as the director and choreographer. Ashford has a formidable list of credits in both musicals and straight plays on Broadway and in London, but he hasn’t brought much creative charge to this production. There are a few sparkling moments but overall the staging is inert, with choruses grouped and virtually motionless and a lack of energy pervasive, including less than inspired choreography that rouses itself only occasionally.
The stars are Steven Pasquale as Billy Bigelow and Laura Osnes as Julie Jordan. Pasquale has a good stage presence as the bravado-soaked barker but his voice is a little light for the demands of the R+H score. Still, he got a rousing ovation for his delivery of the “Soliloquy” near the end of the first act, one of the great showstoppers in American musical history. Pasquale is most successful in his character’s more brutish moments. There isn’t a whole lot of chemistry between his Billy and Osnes’s Julie, who sings with a clarion clarity but doesn’t elevate the character beyond a sweet and innocent young woman who allowed her heart to lead her into wedding with a feckless man not meant for marriage.
The actual star of the Lyric production is Jenn Gambatese as Julie’s friend Carrie. Gambatese won her Lyric Opera spurs last season as a superb Maria in “The Sound of Music.” She has a radiant voice and a nice comic touch to her acting. Some company should give her a crack at Julie Jordan. She would be terrific.
Supporting role honors go to Denyce Graves as Nettie Fowler for her belting leadership in “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “This Was a Real Nice Clambake,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Jarrod Emick is a properly slimy Jigger Craven and Matthew Hydzik sings the mostly comic role of Enoch Snow nicely. Charlotte D’Amboise does what she can with the role of Mrs. Mullen, the owner of Billy’s carousel who has an erotic eye on her employee.
Broadway star Tony Roberts has been imported for the cameo role of the heavenly Starkeeper. His scenes would have been perfect for some eye-popping special effects but Roberts was allowed to walk through his role with no fantasy flourishes, a prime example of the lost opportunities for imaginative touches throughout the production.
The physical production features a set design by Paolo Ventura that emphasizes geometrical blocks of color as a background to realistic foregrounds. Catherine Zather designed the authentic looking period costumes. Ned Austin designed the lighting and Mark Grey is responsible for the sound design. David Chase directs the orchestra and its low keyed approach to even the bounciest numbers in the score.
What this production of “Carousel” needs is a large helping of zest. The two stars aren’t hugely charismatic but they get the job done and likely would shine brighter in a more creative staging. The big disappointment comes in the big dance numbers like “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “Blow High, Blow Low,” and especially the extended and meandering second act dream ballet. But placed against such disappointments is the glorious R+H score, which carries all before it. Is there a more irresistible lump-in-the-throat anthem than “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (with due appreciation of “”Climb Every Mountain”)? The show ends with the song and as usual, I choked up.
“Carousel” runs through May 3 at the Civic Opera House 20 North Wacker Drive. Tickets start at $29. For schedule information ticket purchases call 312 827 5600 or visit www.lyricopera.org/carousel.
The show gets a rating of 3 stars April 12, 2015
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