In the Rodgers and Hammerstein repertoire the governess with the cute kids always seem to grab the most attention. But what about their darker, practically forgotten collaboration about the ill-fated New England couple unable to make the most of their life together? Yes, it’s time to become reacquainted with or introduced to “Carousel,” the heartrendingly beautiful 1945 musical drama enjoyably mounted by the Dayton Playhouse with vocally impressive flourish.
Based on Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play “Liliom,” “Carousel” primarily examines romance from the sheer hopefulness that comes with believing in the idea of a healthy, fruitful relationship no matter how fragile the foundation. Meek millworker Julie Jordan (Adrienne “Adee” McFarland) and charismatic if erratic carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Jeff Sams) are polar opposites who wouldn’t appear to be compatible, but their attraction is evident when they fall for each other after the local carnival shuts down for the night. Throughout the groundbreaking Act 1 sequence commonly referred to as the “bench scene,” a triumph of book and score culminating in the ravishing ballad “If I Loved You,” Julie and Billy swiftly transform from loners to lovers, a fascinatingly impulsive display carrying great promise at greater risk. Even as they enter a hard scrabble marriage hindered by financial woes and specifically splintered by abuse (a prickly, uncomfortable element oddly romanticized by the wholly sentimental, optimistic Hammerstein) this duo feels destined for despair and heartbreak. Still, their engaging, tragic journey is entirely compelling and particularly powerful as Billy gets a chance to redeem himself following his suicide in the aftermath of a botched robbery.
The well-paired, believably bonded McFarland and Sams bring perceptiveness, passion, sincerity, and depth to their vocally challenging roles. In her Playhouse debut, McFarland, a lovely soprano, wisely avoids turning the naïve Julie into a pushover. Her firm interpretation is sweet but resilient. Along the way, she provides a gorgeously lyric-driven rendition of “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’” that begins as cautious sound advice from a long-suffering wife yet evolves into a beautifully stirring declaration of marital commitment. In one of his finest musical theater performances, the fittingly brash, brooding and commanding Sams reveals the flawed complexities within the broken, unhappy and non-skilled Billy, particularly how his bravado masks many insecurities. Also, his dynamically heartfelt rendition of “Soliloquy,” Billy’s contemplative yet soaring examination of life as a father, is delivered with wonderfully expressive transitions, allowing the extensively detailed number to resonate on multiple intriguing levels considering Billy is a rogue who might not have even known his dad.
In addition, the supporting cast is first-rate. As the demure, slightly fussy Carrie Pipperidge, Julie’s sensible best friend and fellow millworker, Krissy McKim-Barker, another lovely soprano, steps into her Playhouse debut with considerable aplomb, especially in her understanding of how much Carrie wants the best for Julie despite the fact that her warnings about Billy, pre and post-marriage, are dismissed. McKim-Barker also has a very amiable partner in Playhouse newcomer Eric Thompson, offering a charmingly confident portrayal of Enoch Snow, the ambitious, no-nonsense fisherman eager to wed Carrie. Thompson, a strong tenor who spins his vocals with a slight crooner sensibility, actually shares the stage with his father J. Gary Thompson, splendidly inhabiting his role as Billy’s smarmy accomplice Jigger Craigin with wit, shrewdness and bite. As Julie’s cousin Nettie Fowler, noted soprano Patricia DiPasquale-Krul, a memorable component of the Playhouse’s production of “A Grand Night for Singing,” provides a plaintively touching rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” the score’s most enduring number. Janice Lea Codispoti brings suave inquisitiveness to her portrayal of carnival manager Mrs. Mullin, an obsessive, jealous soul whose deep affection for Billy, the man of her disillusioned dreams, never wanes. Brad Bishop as the kindly Starkeeper, Shanna Camacho as the Heavenly Friend, Rick Flynn as David Bascombe, Brooke Netzley as Billy and Julie’s daughter Louise, Matthew Smith as Captain/Principal, and Gem City Ballet dancers Lauren Goodman, Ashleigh Hinson and Olivia Bruno (under the direction of Barbara Pontecorvo) are also noteworthy.
Director Brian Sharp keeps the action fluid and effectively transfers the story, originally set in the late 19th century, to the 1930s thereby heightening the idea of a carnival as a means of escapist entertainment during such straining economic times. However, his staging of the prologue, set to the glorious “Carousel Waltz,” one of Rodgers’ most exemplary compositions, could use more variety and sharper character choices. There is also presentation awkwardness in the Act 2 Dream Ballet (Bruno dances the role of Louise while Netzley looks on) and the emotional final scene which surprisingly doesn’t spotlight Billy, Julie and Louise downstage center. Still, Sharp’s work utilizes the ensemble well and is bolstered by the lively choreography of Paige Hanshaw, especially “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “Blow High, Blow Low.” Chris Newman’s striking set, Terry Kahle’s attractive period costumes, Bryan Miller’s lighting, Bob Kovach’s sound design, and music director Ron Kindell’s excellent orchestra, featuring 16 members of the Miami Valley Symphony Orchestra, add to the production’s atmospheric appeal.
There’s nothing wrong with raindrops on roses, but if you’re looking for something more substantive from the virtuoso team who defined Broadway’s Golden Age don’t miss “Carousel.”
“Carousel” continues through Sept. 27 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Act One: 90 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $18 for adults and $16 for seniors and students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 424-8477 or visit online at www.daytonplayhouse.com