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Alexandra Silber rides ‘Carousel’ to renown

Resistance is futile. The music of “Carousel,” with its hypnotic score and soaring love songs (“If I Loved You,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone”), has survived telethons, high school graduations and Simon Cowell. Now this Rodgers and Hammerstein perennial is back in L.A. with a fresh take and a rising new star.

Opening tonight at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, the Reprise staging of “Carousel” marks the American theater debut of Alexandra Silber, a Los Angeles-born talent already celebrated in London for her West End performance as Julie Jordan, a young mill worker in late-19th-century New England who falls hard for Billy Bigelow, a carnival barker torn between love and grift.

Silber -- Al to her friends -- is the vivid heart of director Michael Michetti’s production, which also stars Robert Patteri (“The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Beauty and the Beast”) as Billy. Veteran actor M. Emmett Walsh (“Youth in Revolt,” “Blood Simple”) plays the Starkeeper, the show’s redemptive mystical figure.

In keeping with Reprise’s focus on story over elaborate scenery, Michetti has Walsh reading some of Hammerstein’s stage directions, evoking Thornton Wilder. The director wants to convey both the intimacy of the love story and its larger context.

“The play is about a tight-knit community of working-class people with similar values,” he says. “Julie doesn’t fit in, and neither does Billy. That’s their connection.”

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Last Thursday, as rain and wind pummeled Los Angeles, June was busting out all over on the Freud stage as the cast, in track pants and knee pads, ran -- and reran -- an elaborate dance sequence. Afterward, Silber and Patteri rehearsed a tense scene in which Billy lashes out at Julie for interrupting a meeting. It’s instantly apparent that Silber, 26, is not your typical ingénue. Her low voice and steady gaze are far from the wide-eyed mien of Shirley Jones, who played Julie in the 1956 film.

“Even if Al tried to play apple-cheeked, she couldn’t,” says Patteri. “The choices she makes are so opposite to any Julie I’ve ever seen.”

Michetti agrees. “It’s readily apparent that Alexandra is gorgeous and has a beautiful voice. But she’s truly an actress -- without compromise. She draws on a deep well of human experience.”

Silber’s self-possession comes from a life unexpected. An only child, she lost her father a few years ago and remains close to her mother, a costume designer and former Miss Orange County. Although most young American talent flocks to Juilliard or Yale, Silber chose the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. The Glasgow school, whose acting alums include James McAvoy, Alan Cumming and David Tennant (“Dr. Who”), teaches the visceral approach of Eastern European theater.

“When I played Electra, the image of Agamemnon on stage was a picture of my father,” Silber says.

At a workshop on musical theater, Silber was spotted by a scout who invited her to London to audition for a new project. She would read for “Trevor” (as in Nunn) while “Andrew” (as in Lloyd Webber) played the piano. “Ignorance was bliss,” Silber says with a laugh: “If I’d really understood who these people were, I’d have been terrified.”

Months later, cast member Silber found herself rewriting sections of “The Woman in White” alongside Webber:

“The assumption is that he’s going to enter the room and be a titanic presence. In fact, he’s quiet and diminutive,” she says. “He has a brilliant sense of how to construct a song. Like a mathematician working out a formula right there before your eyes.”

The 19-month West End run of “Woman” led to a role in “Fiddler on the Roof” and then to the acclaimed 2008 “Carousel” revival directed by Lindsay Posner. London critics praised Silber’s “creamy soprano,” “dark, burnished looks” and “star-is-born quality of absolute naturalness.”

“Carousel,” which opened on Broadway in 1945 and ran for 890 performances, was among the first musicals with a tragic plot, paving the way for the dark genius of Sondheim and Kander and Ebb. Its depiction of domestic violence still disturbs audiences.

Is Julie a woman who loves too much? “My answer is that I don’t know,” says Silber. “The truth is, she does what is right for her. ‘Carousel’ doesn’t condone or condemn these themes. It merely presents them.”

Silber believes the show’s unapologetic emotion is the key to its enduring power. She remembers looking out at London audiences every night during the final scene: “People’s faces were melting. They were wiping tears off their chins. No one is as good as Julie. No one is as evil as Jigger. But most of us are as confused as Billy. Like him, we all want to be forgiven -- and to forgive. I love the level of intensity. It’s not ‘Oklahoma,’ which is basically about a girl deciding which guy to take to a picnic!”

Silber likes to dive into the deep end. Her first appearance on film was improvised with scene partner John Cusack in the horror movie “1408.”

“It was an absolute master class in subtlety. The presence of acting is not upon him. He’s just a person living truthfully in the moment,” she says. “I on the other hand was pretending to be cool and pretty much blowing it. The nerdometer was at 10.”

This spring, Silber will appear in “Master Class” with Tyne Daly, part of the Kennedy Center’s Terrence McNally celebration. The four-time Tony-winning playwright didn’t take long to recognize her gifts.

“We saw dozens of candidates for the role,” McNally reports by e-mail. “As soon as Alexandra entered the room, the search was over. She was THAT good.”

As Silber dashes back to rehearsal, she muses on dream roles: Yelena, Rosalind, Cleopatra and Fanny Brice.

“I would love to do ‘Funny Girl.’ To find that power be- hind self-deprecation. Because we’ve all felt that.”

calendar@latimes.com


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