Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
You can often find one classic and one newer show being presented among the two Mainstage musical theater productions staged by the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) each season. This school year follows this same pattern, with the classic tuner Carousel up first. This show, by Broadway's most famous songwriting team, has a sumptuous score along with a challenging and high-stakes story. CCM's mounting boasts wonderful vocals, acting, and dancing by its talented, pre-professional student performers.
Carousel debuted in 1945, and was the Rodgers and Hammerstein follow-up to Oklahoma!. Carousel is an adaptation of the 1909 play Liliom by Ferenc Molnár. The story involves the romance between rough carousel barker Billy Bigelow and millworker Julie Jordan in late 1800s Maine. After both lose their jobs, Billy attempts to pull off a robbery to support Julie and their unborn child, with dire results. Billy eventually gets one last chance at connecting with and helping his family.
The book for Carousel by Oscar Hammerstein II adeptly sets the action in a time and place well-suited to an American musical and contains large amounts of dramatic tension, emotional ups and downs, and dark yet realistic situations. Mr. Hammerstein changed the ending of the story to be less depressing than the source material. Though still sad, this version has a more hopeful tone and message, which is also more audience friendly. In today's culture, some of the plot, especially the parts related to the treatment of women and their reaction to abusive behavior, may come across as intolerable (or at least not very politically correct). However, it is befitting of the setting and characters nonetheless. The show has a largely unsympathetic primary character in Billy, despite the redemptive nature of the ending, and he and his behavior don't sit well with everyone.
Like Oklahoma!, the songs of Carousel set it apart from most others from the 1940s in their quality and sustained popularity, which have made them classics of the musical theater canon. Songs such as "If I Loved You" and "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" contain that combination of musical dexterity and character-specific lyrics which, when brought together, create the first-rate scores for which the team became known. In his music, Richard Rodgers skillfully captures the emotions of the characters through differing rhythmic variations, while Hammerstein's lyrics are conversational, a good fit for the setting and personalities, and poetic. The show's two best and well-known songs are "You'll Never Walk Alone," sung to Julie by her cousin Nettie in the face of tragedy, and "Soliloquy," the powerhouse anthem with an epiphany from Billy about the possibilities of impending fatherhood.
CCM director and choreographer Diane Lala beautifully creates the captivating world of the carnival world during the lengthy overture. Ms. Lala supplies the show with a brisk pace and full use of the large performance space through her blocking. Her dances, influenced by the original moves by Agnes de Mille, include some smile-inducing ingenuity during "Blow High, Blow Low" and musical theater ballet at its best throughout. There are a number of extended dance sequences, including choreography perfectly conveying the courtships of "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and the second act ballet for Louise. These dances include period appropriate yet athletic moves full of emotion and power. Co-musical directors and conductors Roger Grodsky and Danny White lead an exquisite sounding 39-piece orchestra.
As Billy, senior Ben Biggers, who has impressed in his roles at CCM, again puts his considerable talents to great use. The violent nature of his character comes across wonderfully in his detailed acting and excellent singing, and especially in his body language. Still, he provides enough humanity and empathy to allow the audience to care about Billy's outcome. Samantha Pollino couldn't be better as Julie, capturing the curious and trusting nature of the role with a grace and calmness befitting the character. Vocally, she is superb as well, and this is another senior who is likely to be on the Broadway boards sooner than later. Casey Wenger-Schulman is a bit uneven vocally as Carrie, but is a very strong actor, skillfully supplying the character with a well-suited flighty and easily excited (and rattled) persona. Chris Collins-Pisano plays up the pompous nature of Carrie's intended, Enoch, for significant comic relief and shows off a strong singing voice. As Nettie, Brianna Barnes conveys a free-spiritedness in her first few numbers, and then stoic caring while singing "You'll Never Walk Alone." Fine supporting performances are also turned in by Raven Thomas (a sharp and forceful Mrs. Mullin), Tom Meglio (a wise, patient, and kind Starkeeper/Dr. Seldon), and John Battagliese (a ruthless Jigger). The large ensemble does an outstanding job of executing the challenging choreography and lovely choral work.
The scenic design by Thomas C. Unfrid includes vivid visuals for the opening scene (aided by some unique props by Kat Miller) and attractive and functional sets for the rest of the production. Rebecca Senske's costumes are apt and period appropriate, and the theatrical lighting by Joe Beumer uses rich colors to enhance the changing moods and tone of the show.
Carousel is a very adult show, with dark and dramatic overtones and some questionable messages about physical abuse. However, its songs make it a classic, and CCM's production is a stellar one. A remarkable orchestra, talented student cast, and worthwhile design and direction make this a memorable mounting for the collegiate program.
Carousel was performed at CCM from October 29 - November 1, 2015. For more information, visit www.ccm.uc.edu.-- Scott Cain