Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's recent review of Mary Poppins
First things first: Todd Rosenthal's non-realistic but evocative set. The octagonal central stage built of whitewashed planks suggests a lighthouse, accessible by walkways from the four corners of the theater and enhanced with two concentric turntables. Some members of the orchestra perform from a bandstand on the "roof" of the structure, while others play from underneath the stage.
Smith, along with choreographer Parker Esse, uses stylized movement and pantomime to keep the human drama from getting lost in picturesque scenes of the 19th-century Maine coast. The carnival where factory worker Julie Jordan (Betsy Morgan) meets barker Billy Bigelow (Nicholas Rodriguez) grows organically from a few crates and members of the ensemble portraying carnival performers (bearded lady, dancing bear, weight lifter) into a rotating carousel with live "horses." For that matter, the later ballet involving Julie and Billy's daughter Louise (Skye Mattox) and a carnival boy (Michael Graceffa) includes some rather Freudian man-monsters.
Morgan demonstrates that Julie, despite staying with a proud man who keeps getting in his own way and once hit her, is no victim. She has a backbone, stands up for herself and never falls into self-pity. In this interpretation, the problematic song "What's the Use of Wond'rin" sums up Julie's philosophy: Billy has problems but so does she, and she accepts him despite themmaybe more than she should.
Rodriguez is a strong, swaggering Billy who nails all the elements of "Soliloquy," from macho pride to fear and resolution. He plays the role with rugged physicality and a touch of a New York accent, suggesting his upbringing in urban slums before he discovered the carnival life.
Kyle Schliefer practically slithers as Jigger Craigin, while E. Faye Butler makes Mrs. Mullin, Billy's jealous employer, more prominent than she may ever have been before. (She doesn't even have a song.) Kate Rockwell and Kurt Boehm demonstrate a good push and pull as spirited Carrie Pipperidge and ambitious Enoch Snow.
Esse took inspiration for his dances from Agnes de Mille's work on the 1945 Broadway premiere, but his choreography goes in new directions. In addition to the propulsive opening to the "Carousel Waltz," he marshals his male dancers in "Blow High, Blow Low" in a blend of ballet, gymnastics and hornpipe, and "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" soars with leaps and lifts.