Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Carousel" more dance extravaganza than you thought and spare, muscular production

Brandon O'Neill and Laura Griffith in Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel (Mark Kitaoka)

Through March 1, 2015

The fluid, muscular choreography of Donald Byrd and Spectrum Dance Theater makes this spare, engaging production of Carousel soar to new heights. Director Bill Berry both lightens and darkens the tones, bringing a depth of expression to this sometimes taken-for-granted musical.

The dance tone is set right from the start with the Carousel Waltz, a full on dance sequence introducing the amusement park and its attraction for the townsfolk. With few words, we meet Julie (a stubborn Laura Griffith) and her bestie Carrie (enthusiastic, bubbly Billie Wildrick) and see the attraction of rough-hewn carousel barker Billie Bigelow (powerful Brandon O’Neill). We note that amusement park owner Mrs. Mullin (Cynthia Jones) might be a bit jealous of the fawning girls.
The set changes seamlessly from in front of the amusement park to the carousel itself and back again. The suggestive stars and boats and stacked crates (designed by Martin Christoffel) allow for full use of the stage area unencumbered by unmovable set pieces.

The dancer ensemble meshes well with the rest of the cast, blending and singing as well. The music (directed by Ian Eisendrath) is full and lush but also doesn’t overpower the singers. Rousing ensemble numbers like June is Bustin’ Out All Over and A Real Nice Clambake are crowd-pleasing.

It’s still true that the musical has a couple of the most wince-inducing lines in the musical theater canon. (“Mama, can someone hit you so hard and it still not you hurt at all?” “Yes, it’s true.” paraphrased) Tom Lehrer told me he never liked the musical because, “It’s about a guy who hits women, dies and gets a second chance, and hits ‘em again.”

But this must be contextualized along with many historic pieces of art. Rodgers and Hammerstein were breaking ground even by mentioning abuse of women in their piece. Yes, they downplayed it, but first they acknowledged it, and even berated the main character for it. It was truly progressive in its time.

Beyond that, there are some gorgeous songs, a very funny Wildrick lightening the mood with her glee at landing Mr. Snow and then defying tradition while still adhering to the morals of that day, Anne Allgood providing the moving anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone, O’Neill singing a breathtaking Soliloquy about having either a baby boy or baby girl, and some great dancing.

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