Tell people you’re going to see “Carousel,” the 1945 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical about an explosive love affair in a quaint coastal Maine town, between brooding carousel barker Billy Bigelow and wholesome mill worker Julie Jordan, and their eyes dim a little. Maybe there’s a yawn in there, too. They remember it from their high school stage, on which metaphor and nuance are sometimes hard to grasp. They think it’s old-fashioned, lethargic, even tenuous.
But there’s something remarkably current about it, too. Julie Jordan, a girl’s girl who can fawn over a cute boy like the best of us, is also a bit of a feminist. She doesn’t put up with Billy’s hoodlum nonsense – which, to be fair, could easily be construed as aggressive or outright disrespectful – until she has to, until she can’t fight her crush-gone-love anymore. They are the ultimate bad boy-good girl duo.
There’s also Rodgers’ illustrious score, which boasts songbook standards “If I Loved You,” “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and one of the greatest power ballads of all time, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” That song could turn a hardened criminal soft. It’s just glorious. Meanwhile, Hammerstein’s book, though slow, is full of quips and zingers. My eyebrow raised a few times, forgetfully naïve to its wit and progressive-for-its-time daring.
So how, then, does a show so comfortable to older audiences and eye-opening to younger ones fail to deliver on such fantastic material? A new production at MusicalFare, the first local staging of this show in two decades, has many of its ducks ready to go, but they are not lined up.
First the good: Director Randy Kramer’s cast is superb, and they sound glorious. Edith Grossman, our Julie, sounds as if she were born on a cloud. She’s an angel whose wings harden as her story progresses. Paschal Frisina III, her Billy, sings with a boot’s full of conviction, with conflicting vigor and sentimentality. Frisina does not exude the typical bad boy on paper, however bullish he can be. But he uses his softness kindly. Arin Lee Dandes, Dudney Joseph Jr., Steve Copps and Charmagne Chi are expectably fantastic in their supporting roles, as is Celine Keefe, whose stage presence is hard to forget.
Music director Theresa Quinn does a fine job interpreting Rodgers’ soaring orchestral score for three instruments, its skeletal remains simmering like a candle vigil or seaside shanty. It feels like a true chamber musical, which is the only employed aesthetic that serves this space properly.
Directorial decisions aside – muting Agnes de Mille’s exquisite choreography for this tight space (Jon Lehrer acts as movement consultant); removing Louise’s Ballet altogether – it’s the visual approach that distracts the most. Chris Schenk’s set design begins figuratively, hanging an elegant circle frame center stage and out across the apron, seemingly within the audience’s grasp. When lit, it hovers over us like a halo, putting us all in its glow. Stunning. The set design could have ended there, feeding us just a morsel of what we could have imagined on our own, like a faded postcard. But Schenk’s love of projections, confusingly sourced from contemporary images, takes us to literal places that we could easily surmise.
The same thing can be said of Kari Drozd’s costumes, which reciprocate for the absence of a literal carousel by adding embellishment upon embellishment to every leg, arm and torso. The approach makes enough sense, but its execution is so overt that, again, it distracts.
This is an unfortunate theme. There’s no reason, with these assets and this talent, why we couldn’t have been trusted to see and hear just what was necessary, and left to push through those open doors. Those creative risks let us find new light in old memories, truth in new revelations; that’s theater for all ages. On a stage that must do more with less, the answer, unfailingly, is less is more.
Where: MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Amherst
When: through May 17
Tickets: $42 with student, military discounts available