Arena Stage
Washington, DC

Reviewed by Hans Bachmann

On November 11, 2016; Closed December 24, 2016

Unlike many of my theater colleagues, I’ve always had a deep regard and affection for Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. However, I never enjoyed their musical Carousel—which made its theatrical debut more that 70 years ago—as much as some of their other works. Director Molly Smith’s refreshing and inspiration reboot, however, has overcome most of this show’s dated sensibilities and has brought me a new appreciation of this musical.

From the clever placement of the orchestra above the stage so that its music rains down as if from heaven to the first strains of the Prologue reinforcing the visual image of young women millworkers tolling way to selection and direction of a superbly talented cast, Arena’s Carousel brings new life and depth of meaning to this oft-told tale.

The story of a carousel barker and female millworker who both lose their jobs for love of each other and enter into a passionate but tumultuous marriage ending in tragedy is brilliantly told through the chemistry and charisma brought to the roles by Nicholas Rodriguez and Betsy Morgan. Their voices gloriously sailed through the beautiful “If I Loved You” in which they convincing established their attraction for each other. Mr. Rodriguez gives a tour de force interpretation of Billy’s joyous and determined view of fatherhood in “Soliloguy,” whereas Ms. Morgan provided a moving explanation as to why she could stay with a man who strikes out at her in frustration in “What’s The Use Of Wonderin’.” Their portrayal of these characters has such depth and nuance, that one can understand the reasons why Billy and Julie make the tragic choices they do, bringing an emotional core that resonates throughout the evening.

Kate Rockwell and Kurt Boehm essay the roles of Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, rising above the stereotypical comedic qualities of the characters to imbue them with warmth in their love for each other as well as heartbreak when their relationship is torn asunder by Jigger Craigin (Stephawn Stephens). Mr. Stephens interestingly chooses to portray Jigger as jocular, manipulative sociopath rather than the typically dark Rogers and Hammerstein villain.

Also turning in stellar performances are E. Faye Butler as Mrs. Mullin, the carnival proprietress with conflicting feelings for her carousel barker, and Ann Arvia as Nettie Fowler, who leads a talented ensemble in rousing versions of “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “A Real Nice Clambake” and helps Julie through her sorrow with a moving “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Kudos go to musical director Paul Sportelli for an excellent orchestra and the exquisite solo and ensemble work by the performers, as well as to choreographer Parker Esse for group numbers that surpassed any challenges posed by performing in the round and the thrilling ballet that succinctly and beautifully tells the story of the travails faced by Billy’s offspring.

At show’s end, I was left with the strains of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” still playing in my head. The power of this show and this song in particular resonates with particular poignancy in light of the discord and conflict that has become commonplace as a result of the volatile political atmosphere and still provides inspiration and comfort intended by its creators more than 70 years ago.

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