"Carousel," the Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut, always was better when roasted without the candy-corn coating. Audiences and directors often forget that this 1945 musical which its makers preferred to their previous, monstrous success, "Oklahoma!" isn't dominated by its fantasy elements, or its open-air clambake merriment. It's dominated by a story (reworked from Ferenc Molnar's "Liliom," which ended on a dissonant note as opposed to the musical's redemptive upper) about a stoic mill worker and her abusive lout of a husband.
And it's dominated by songs such as "If I Loved You."
That song remains a sterling lesson in musical storytelling. It's the song by way Julie and Billy fall in love, and though we don't know either character well by that point in Act 1, by the end of the song with the wary lovers giving in to the "golden chance" at hand, even if it's fool's gold Rodgers' tidal melody and Hammerstein's sharp, simple lyrics have transported them into a new realm.
The "Carousel" at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is a soulful, powerful rendition. Without sacrificing the show's enormous, bittersweet charms, director Gary Griffin does what he did in such diverse recent projects as "Pacific Overtures" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and "My Fair Lady" at the Court: He keeps the relationships vital and true.
In particular Susan Moniz brings a watchful intelligence to Julie Jordan, a role too often flounced into girlishness. And in the supple reprise of "What's the Use of Wond'rin?" Moniz's duet with Heidi Kettenring's vibrant Carrie the production secures its musical highlight.
Griffin takes a cue from the astounding Nicholas Hytner "Carousel" revival seen in London, on Broadway and on tour, a staging that embraced the material's dark side. Though Marriott's in-the-round stage doesn't afford room for much of a carousel, Griffin and choreographer Jennifer Kemp Lupp maintain the merry-go-round imagery in their swirling circular traffic patterns. Wisely the production retains the full second-act ballet, in which Brian Herriott's forcefully sung Billy looks down from the back door of heaven on his daughter, danced wonderfully by Sasha Vargas. Also, Griffin and company cut "Geraniums in the Winder" and "Stonecutters Cut It On Stone," both of which aren't missed.
Though Herriott's a little obvious in his attack, and Ron Rains' Enonch Snow is a shade too caricatured, they're both strong musically. Felicia P. Fields' Nettie takes "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" down an octave, lending it a pleasant, earthy quality. Joe Forbrich makes for a fine, scrappy Jigger; it's a kick to see this veteran of off-Loop tough-guy roles make his local dinner theater debut. As Mrs. Mullin, keeper of the carnival as well as Billy's paramour, Linda Kimbrough is painted lady incarnate.
Until the Hytner revival I admired "Carousel" more than loved it. Its squirmy, forgiving-to-a-fault stance on spousal abuse always gave off a bad odor, and the score's official anthem, "You'll Never Walk Alone," was never my thing.
But Griffin is very savvy in these matters. His focus on the one-on-one, often bruising encounters pays off. The playing here is breathless, urgent (sometimes too much so). Without lifting anything directly from Hytner's staging, the Marriott "Carousel" just may win over a few "Carousel" skeptics, while keeping the show's committed fans happy.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times