'Carousel's' Spin on Circle of Life

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The most emotionally opulent of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, "Carousel" is a strange and wonderful beast. British director Nicholas Hytner has re-envisioned this 1945 masterwork with sexual frankness, poetic clarity and a touch of postmodernism.

His 1992 Royal National Theatre production, which opened Wednesday night at the Ahmanson Theatre, is essential viewing for anyone who loves the musical theater.

Adapted from Ferenc Molnar's play "Liliom," "Carousel" is the story of Billy Bigelow (Patrick Wilson), an angry and alienated carnival barker scraping by in a turn-of-the-century New England coast town. He marries the loving and, in her small way, brave soul, Julie Jordan (Sarah Uriarte), a problematic character because she insists on seeing the good in her husband even though he sometimes hits her.

The hardscrabble nature of the town and of the lives and hopes of these "little people" are evoked so gorgeously in song and staging that you may feel as if you have not taken a breath in the show's first 45 minutes, which glide by like a beautiful, poignant dream.

Hytner's by-now famous opening shows the mill girls laboring in mechanical unison at their loom, heads moving in sync to the stately opening strains of the "Carousel Waltz." Just as the music climbs to its first pitch of joyful expectation, the factory whistle blows and the girls tear off their bonnets and fly outside to the fairgrounds, where they are joined by groups of boys. Together, their leaps coincide with fresh bursts of joy from the score (exquisitely orchestrated by William Brohn).

At the fairground, the carnival is assembled before our eyes, and set pieces come on and fly off via a turntable in the stage that, like many other circles in the show's design, suggests the inevitable and unstoppable flow of life.

In fact, the entire show has the burnished and elemental quality of a dream, thanks also to the work of lighting designer Paul Pyant. Key scenes take place outside under a full moon, and Pyant paints a stage that is simultaneously dark and brilliantly lighted, perfectly echoing "Carousel's" bitter realism and its arching spirituality, which extends, in the somewhat bizarre second act, into the heavens to follow Billy in a struggle for grace that continues even after death.

When Julie and Billy sing their courting song, "If I Loved You," they stand perfectly still on a sloping hill under a full moon with a white church far in the background on another sloping hill.

Designed by Bob Crowley (with a nod to Grant Wood) to be not quite realistic and not quite mythical, the setting has a timeless air. The lovers notice an absence of wind as blossoms drop from the trees by themselves. "Just their time to, I guess," Julie says.

"Carousel" is deeply keyed into the organic mysteries of life. Its creators' openness to cosmic possibility is perfectly captured by every member of this production's creative team.

*

No single performance or personality dominates. The voices are all good, and the score is beautifully showcased. Uriarte is lovely as Julie, steadfast and strong in her vulnerable, heartbreaking way. Wilson gives an almost self-effacing performance; he doesn't make Bigelow a large-scale failure but an ordinary one.

As Carrie, Julie's best friend who finds a happier fate, Sherry D. Boone is spunky, with a nicely serene and girlish soprano that contrasts well with Uriarte's more high-strung timbre. As Carrie's sweetheart, Sean Palmer preens excessively and seems to be in another show entirely.

Brett Rickaby is funny and dangerous as the bad man Jigger Craigin and, as Nettie, Rebecca Eichenberger shows off a rich mezzo that blows the dust off of "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and brings a hushed dignity to "You'll Never Walk Alone," the heart and soul of the show as well as the essence of the Rodgers and Hammerstein philosophy.

Dana Stackpole and Joseph Woelfel dance with elan the second-act ballet, a very literal courtship dance for Louise, Billy's troubled daughter, and a fairground ruffian. The show's choreographer, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, died one month before the show's London premiere, and his assistant, Jane Elliott, put together Louise's solo using movement ideas from other MacMillan ballets.

Hytner (who also directed "Miss Saigon") respects even the show's corny aspects and insists on believing in its emotional truths as fervently as Oscar Hammerstein believed that "At the end of the storm is a golden sky / And the sweet, silver song of a lark."

But the director's attraction to the musical's dark side sometimes presents a tone problem. In one scene, Julie relates her rather alarming marital woes to Carrie alone in Nettie's cottage; in the next moment a dozen chorus girls are popping brightly through the windows to sing a song, and the jangle of two sensibilities can provoke uncomfortable laughter in the audience.

Jarring moments aside, Hytner has brought us a beautiful "Carousel." The full moon under which Julie and Billy court is echoed by a huge clock at the mill and a hoop of fire on the opening curtain. This is the circle of life in terms both mortal and eternal, a wheel of birth, sin and redemption that is the centerpiece of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most ambitious musical. Their enduring legacy is honored onstage at the Ahmanson.

* "Carousel," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m.; also July 14, 21, 28, Aug. 4, 7 p.m.; Aug. 8, 15, 22, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 25. $15-$65. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 3 hours.

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Sarah Uriarte: Julie Jordan

Patrick Wilson: Billy Bigelow

Sherry D. Boone: Carrie Pipperidge

Sean Palmer: Enoch Snow

Rebecca Eichenberger: Nettie Fowler

Brett Rickaby: Jigger Craigin

Kate Buddeke: Mrs. Mullin

William Metzo: David Bascombe, Starkeeper, Dr. Seldon

Dana Stackpole: Louise

Joseph Woelfel: Fairground Boy

With: Joseph Ricci, Keri Lee, Craig Ricks, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Marty Benn, Jeffrey Elsass, Christopher Freeman, David MacGillivray, Rommy Sandhu, Eric Christian, Ilene Bergelson, Kristenelle Coronado, B.J. Crockett, Jasminn Ricketts , Leslie Anne Cardona, Duane Boutte, Katie Hugo, George Merrick, Rhea Roderick, Thursday Farrar, Holly Kinnaird, Weslie Webster, Donna Rubin.

Columbia Artists Management Inc., Center Theatre Group, Jujamcyn Theater Productions Inc. and Theatre Under the Stars in association with the Troika Organization and Pace Theatrical Group, by arrangement with Cameron Mackintosh, present a Royal National Theatre production. Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on the play "Liliom" by Ferenc Molnar. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Choreography Sir Kenneth MacMillan. Dances staged by Jane Elliott. Sets and costumes Bob Crowley. Lighting Paul Pyant. Sound Steve Canyon Kennedy. Orchestrations William David Brohn. Musical director Kevin Farrell. Fight director David Leong. Production stage manager Michael J. Passaro.

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