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Theater review: ‘Carousel’ by Reprise

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Few characterizations in musical theater are painted with as many shades of gray as those of the working-class hero and heroine of ‘Carousel.’

He’s a preening egomaniac who, when life turns a little tough, misdirects his rage at the woman who shares his life. She’s strong enough to understand and forgive the abuse, which seems as misguided as it is admirable.

Their story pulses with complex, contradictory life, but only if audience buy-in is swift and unwavering. As of Wednesday’s opening, the Reprise presentation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s magnificent 1945 musical wasn’t quite earning that reaction, despite the intellectual rigor of the approach taken by director Michael Michetti, one of the city’s surest stagers of musicals, and a wonderfully honest and direct portrayal of heroine Julie Jordan by Alexandra Silber, a Los Angeles-born performer who after sustained prominence on London’s West End is only now making her American debut.

Michetti’s story-theater approach surely will be the most talked-about aspect of this production. The stage directions, meant for the production team’s eyes only, are spoken, ‘Our Town'-like, by the grandfatherly, bushy-eyebrowed character actor M. Emmet Walsh. When not otherwise needed, actors gather with him along the back wall to watch the story unfolding at center stage. It’s a deft, direct approach to a tale that, like Thornton Wilder’s, is delicately balanced between drama and sentimentality, in the worlds of the living and the dead.

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Sturdy as this frame is, it is also artificial. Within it, one needs to witness life, absolutely real and in the moment. Yet this occurs sporadically. For too much of its nearly three hours, this presentation unfolds with a stubborn listlessness.

And yet, in the moments when this production catches hold, it is at once lovely and heartbreaking.

Silber’s Julie, a cotton-mill worker in 1870s New England, is no pushover. She clearly sees the flaws in roguish if hard to resist carousel barker Billy Bigelow, but she also sees his best and truest self -- and patiently trusts that, ultimately, he will too.

Her delicately nuanced performance is matched by that of Jane Noseworthy as prim but open-minded friend Carrie Pipperidge. Also terrifically insightful are the dances of Reprise resident choreographer Lee Martino, which use the eternal push-pull between man and woman -- evoked by couples who fiercely resist each other, then melt into each other -- to mirror the central relationship.

The voices, for this listener, are an acquired taste. The lead women have fast, fluttery vibratos somewhere between opera singer and church-choir lady. Orchestrations by Larry Blank, newly created for a 2008 London revival in which Silber starred, were hard to judge Wednesday as singers slipped out of sync with conductor Darryl Archibald and the 17-piece orchestra.

The linchpin role of Billy is a tricky one. Where Julie is plain-spoken and quick to stand up for herself, Billy is so frustrated by his faults that he cowardly turns physical. In carefully chosen moments, Robert Patteri lets a smile of genuine delight replace the calculatedly charming ones with which Billy masks himself. Intellect isn’t the same as heart, however. Patteri -- like this production as a whole -- has the former in abundance, the latter not so much.

-- Daryl H. Miller

‘Carousel,’ Reprise at the Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 7. $70 and $75. (310) 825-2101 or www.reprise.org. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

Above: Robert Patteri and Alexandra Silber in the Reprise production of ‘Carousel.’ Photo credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Related:

Alexandra Silver rides ‘Carousel’ to renown


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