Carousel – Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

Carousel poster

When it initially opened in 1945, the second collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II was overshadowed by the popularity of the first. Oklahoma! was such a huge success that expectations for Carousel could never be met, and critically they weren’t. It was even worse for the film. Carousel the movie was released just months after Oklahoma! with the same two Hollywood leads. Even on the big screen, the second was over shadowed when compared to the first.

Fortunately, with the passing of time, issues like release dates and which musical is better no longer apply. From the benefit of age, each R & H musical can be judged and appreciated on its own, individual term, and for many, the dark themes tackled in Carousel make the second and more adult collaboration often the favorite. It was Richard Rogers’. It’s certainly mine.

Based on a downbeat, Hungarian 1909 play named after its lead character, Liliom, Rodgers and Hammerstein took the story of a Budapest carousel fairground barker who marries local girl Julie, changed the barker’s name to Billy and moved the action from Europe to Maine. Surprisingly, Hammerstein’s book adaptation kept most of the original work’s dark side in the musical.

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The opening of this new ABT production is a dazzling presentation of sight and sound. It’s 1873, evening time, and a fairground on the New England coastline slowly comes alive. As Lizzie Hatfield’s arrangement of the opening musical theme starts to build, so, too, does the fairground carousel; piece by piece, horse by horse, until a full, colorful array of fairground horses and eager paying customers turn in delirious, thrilling circles to that famous, rousing Carousel Waltz. It’s very impressive.

So are the following moments played out between Billy (Michael O’Brien) and local factory worker Julie (Jeannie Shubitz) as they meet for the first time, where they flirt and imagine what their lives might be like if they were in love. It’s a lengthy scene that plays like a mini, operatic musical unto itself as the attraction between the characters grow, culminating with the beautiful and beautifully sung If I Loved You, one of the genuinely great numbers of the American musical theatre. As blossom leaves slowly float from above like large, magical snowflakes in slow motion around the two leads you might be forgiven from worrying whether the rest of the show could ever live up to such a glittering opening and such an inspiring second scene. Fortunately, for the most part, it does.

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Both Shubitz and O’Brien make two vastly appealing leads with fine singing voices, particularly Shubitz’s gorgeous, moving rendition of If I Loved You. O’Brien’s Soliloquy, where Billy imagines the kind of fun he will have with his boy Bill, began well, but judging from the opening weekend Saturday evening’s performance, it lacked the powerful, emotional, climactic punch the piece requires. And while there’s no weak voice evident in the large and strong, supporting ensemble, a certain spell is occasionally broken when a character appears to sing directly at the audience, as if acknowledging we’re there before them as in a variety show, rather than at each other, as required in a play with music. With this particular piece, only at the conclusion when the cast takes its bow should there be any direct eye contact with the house.

Alyx-Marie Kleinsteiber’s striking nineteenth century costumes nicely capture the period, while Jim Hunter’s imaginative and effective set design, colorfully lit by Colin Riebel with atmospheric background sounds of evening fairground crowds and late-night crickets by Eric Johnson help bring the whole show alive.

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While this handsome looking new production under Stephen Casey’s stage direction on the wide Arizona Broadway Theatre stage in Peoria has an overall colorful, confectionery look to its presentation, it doesn’t shy from downplaying those bleak themes. Before going to the afterlife where he’s given a second chance to return to Earth and redeem himself, Billy’s death is not softened by having him accidentally fall on his knife, as many productions often do. Here he purposely takes the knife to himself rather then be sent to prison for a botched crime.

When Billy returns to earth some fifteen years after his death in an attempt to redeem himself, his actions and his positive influence on both his daughter Louise (Katey Sabo) and his widow, Julie, are not altogether clear when presented on stage – with the benefit of close-ups in the movie version, this was never an issue – though that was always a problem with Hammerstein’s original book and has less to do with ABT’s staging. But the inspiring and emotional You’ll Never Walk Alone never fails to stir and will still be resonating in your head as you leave the theatre. Composer Richard Rodgers has said that the song and those emotive, final moments are meant to make you cry. For many, enjoying this ABT production, I’m quite sure it will.

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For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ABT website.

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