Chicago Theatre Review
A Dream of a Musical
Carousel – Lyric Opera
Chicago audiences are in for a magical, moving musical treat with the Lyric Opera’s third year of their five-show retrospective, showcasing the best of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. Following last season’s incredible production of “The Sound of Music,” the latest offering is a seldom-produced romantic musical by America’s iconic composer and lyricist team. Based upon “Liliom,” Ferenc Molnar’s tragic 1909 drama, this musical, like their first hit, “Oklahoma,” became another groundbreaker in American theatre back in 1945, with its antihero, dark themes and poignant ending.
The show’s hero, Billy Bigelow, is a ruggedly handsome, quick-tempered out-of-work carnival roustabout, with anger management issues. Billy unexpectedly falls in love with and marries the lovely Julie Jordan, a strong-willed young woman who willingly sacrifices her job at the textile mill to be with her blackguard boyfriend. When he learns he’s soon to become a father, Billy enters into a desperate criminal scheme with another scoundrel, Jigger Craigin, together plotting to kill and steal thousands of dollars from a wealthy mill manager. The plan goes awry and Billy loses his life, goes to heaven and, in an attempt to right the many wrongs he committed when he was alive, is allowed to return to earth for one day. Although invisible, Billy sees Julie once more, along with his daughter Louise, now a beautiful, lonely teenager, like himself. In the final moments of the story, both Julie and Louise find the strength they need to carry on their lives and Billy returns to heaven, happy in the knowledge that those he loves most will be all right.
Although not actually re-imagining this classic, because it’s one of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s lesser-known musicals this production stands out for many other reasons. Most audiences may be familiar with some of the music, but because this expensive, cumbersome show is seldom produced, this will be the average theatergoer’s introduction to “Carousel.” Director and choreographer Rob Ashford, known for his excellent work on Broadway (“Evita,” “How to Succeed…,” “Promises, Promises”), film (the recently released “Disney’s Cinderella”) and television, (live broadcasts of “Peter Pan” and “The Sound of Music”), has staged this beautiful production with stars of the Broadway and ballet stage. His vision offers a grandly majestic, operatic sweep overflowing with wonderful characters and inventive, athletic choreography. Instead of setting the piece in 1873, the time period of the original production, Ashford makes the story more contemporary by placing it at the end of the Great Depression. This lavish, spectacular version sports a sparkling, American Primitive look, created scenically by visual artist Paolo Ventura (in his theatrical debut), with moody, atmospheric lighting designed by Neil Austin. Catherine Zuber’s practical, pastel, working class costumes from the late 1930’s look period perfect. David Chase conducts the Lyric’s 37-piece orchestra, recreating Richard Rodgers’ rich, hauntingly memorable melodies in a way unknown to modern audiences, particularly the unforgettable symphonic prelude, “The Carousel Waltz,” as well as with the gorgeous ballet in Act II; and Chorus Master Michael Black has brought all of his trained singers to full voice in this astounding piece of theatre.
Fresh off his recent starring role on Broadway in “The Bridges of Madison County,” handsome, rich baritone and talented actor Steven Pasquale is the perfect Billy Bigelow. His sulky swagger, his journey toward self-discovery and repentance and his difficulty expressing love make this Billy a multi-layered character that audiences won’t soon forget. Mr. Pasquale’s incredible, perfect rendition of “Soliloquy” stands as a lesson for every musical theatre student of how this soul-searching musical monologue should be performed. Coming off her own recent Broadway role as “Cinderella,” Laura Osnes (who, on the TV reality show “You’re the One That I Want,” became the new Sandy in Broadway’s revival of “Grease”) is a beautiful, moving Julie Jordan. She brings a glorious soprano along with a feisty, heartfelt performance as one of musical theatre’s strongest women, a loner determined to follow her heart toward happiness. Her sumptuous “What’s the Use of Wondrin’” and her beautiful, memorable duet with Mr. Pasquale, “If I Loved You,” are guaranteed to elicit tears.
If those songs don’t bring a lump to the throat, mezzo-soprano opera star Denyce Graves’ performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is sure to leave audiences weeping. As another strong female character, Ms. Graves plays Nettie Fowler, the no-nonsense proprietor of the boarding house where Julie and Billy live, with verve and gusto. She’s a dominant force, the matriarch of this male-dominated New England fishing village, and Ms. Graves, as Julie’s role model, has the gravitas to stand up to every single one of them. Last season’s wonderful Maria von Trapp, Jenn Gambatese returns as Carrie Pipperidge, Julie’s best friend and co-worker at the mill. While Julie pines for bad boy Billy Bigelow, Carrie sings about her love and her imagined future with her fiancee, “Mr. Snow.” She first introduces herself to the audience as the play’s comic relief, an amiable gal pal, with her infectious, “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan.” Eventually Carrie marries Enoch Snow (played by the marvelous actor/singer Matthew Hydzik, who was recently wowed Broadway audiences as Tony in “West Side Story”), and Ms. Gambatese’s character realistically develops from young girl into a mature wife and mother, while still supporting and caring for her friend, Julie.
Broadway leading man Jarrod Emick (“Damn Yankees,” “The Full Monty”) plays the despicable Jigger Craigin with all the ego and malice required of this role. Charlotte D’Amboise (“Pippin,” “A Chorus Line,” “Chicago”) is fantastic as the self-centered carousel owner, Mrs. Mullins. Ashford gives the dancing/singing actress a featured role in the Act II Ballet, which proves, if there was any doubt, that the lady’s still got it in spades. Ms. D’Amboise is conniving and narcissistic as the sexually-driven older woman who thinks she owns Billy. Abigail Simon is extraordinary as young Louise, dancing her heart out with Martin Harvey’s Carnival Boy. And, in fact, the entire 60 member cast, particularly in the choral numbers, like “June is Busting Out All Over,” “Stonecutters Cut It On Stone” and “A Real Nice Clambake,” will elicit goosebumps with their astounding, heavenly singing and dancing.
This is a rare opportunity to see and hear this seldom-produced musical performed the way Rodgers and Hammerstein envisioned their second hit musical. It shouldn’t be missed. There’s romance, humor and pathos, with spectacle galore, in a unique opportunity to enjoy real Broadway performances, alongside many of Chicago’s best musical theatre actors, in what can only be called a dream of a musical.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 10-May 3 by the Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-332-2244 or by going to www.lyricopera.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.