A ‘Carousel’ Ride Back in Time

I always loved carousels as a child (one of my earliest photos, and memories, took place on a carousel in Coney Island). So of course I hopped right onto the horse for a short, fun spin on the colorful carousel (complete with barker) stationed at the entrance of The Wick Theatre to promote their latest show.  

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CAROUSEL, which played on Broadway in 1945, has become practically as famous and beloved a musical, over time, as the duo’s first Broadway mega-hit “Oklahoma!” staged two years earlier. That production was considered so influential, it was the model for musicals in America for decades. But back in the day, they had real concerns about how to follow their earlier success. The public might have expected more of the same but this creative team went searching for something new – in this case, a musical that’s more in tune with the hardships of real life, personal failings … in short, humanity’s darker side. “Carousel” was the musical Richard Rodgers would come to call his favorite. 

If you only read the glowing press release spotlighting all the incredible songs whose words you likely know by heart, and view the glorious production photos, you might forget how storm clouds gather in Act II. I did. Perhaps I should have first read Executive Managing Producer Marilynn Wick’s program message where she takes stock of their past ten years and realizes a trend where “the Leading Lady always looked picture-perfect; the guy always got the girl; and life was, well, perfect.”

In choosing to produce “Carousel,” she was looking for greater complexity. “Where good guys can sometimes be bad.” And engaging with these rich, flawed and complicated characters, reminded her of the power of forgiveness. Ending her message with: “In today’s similarly complicated times, I hold hope that we give each other grace and the opportunity for redemption.”

There’s romance in the night air when CAROUSEL stars Julie (Julia Suriano) and Billy
(Trevor Martin) spend a little alone time together. Photo by Amy Pasquantonio.

I’m laughing here because, YES!, I prefer receiving spiritual guidance from the church of theater any day! Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein must have felt similarly because Rodgers later stated that they went ahead with the musical only after receiving permission to revise Ferenc Molnar’s original 1909 play “Lilliom” – especially his bleak and nihilistic second act. And their decision to move the setting from gloomy Budapest to a bright and sunny fishing town off the coast of Maine – where residents enjoy a beachside amusement park (complete with circus acts and carousel rides) and participate in annual wholesome traditions like clambakes and scavenger hunts – was brilliant!

Like a breath of fresh air in humid Florida, the Wick stage instantly transports us to the natural beauty of the New England coastline where wide skies and sea meet in various luminous shades, depending on the time of day. And oh those breathtaking starry and moonlit nights! All thanks to the skill of projection designer Kacey Koploff, with lighting design by Clifford Spulock and sound engineer Hana Suarez. There’s a real wooden bridge and other props to add realistic dimension to the foreground by scenic designer Jack Golden, while costuming – especially all those elaborate long skirts and hairdos worn by women in the 1870s – is expertly achieved by costume designers Judy Chang & Alan Wilson, with wig design by Britte Steele.

We meet the entire company decked out in 1873 finery for the opening “Prologue” (The Carousel Waltz) soon followed by the famous lyrics of When I marry…“Mister Snow,” sung by best friends and top-notch vocalists Carrie Pipperidge (Mallory Newbrough) and Julie Jordan (Julia Suriano). An earlier scene had widowed carousel owner Mrs. Mullin (Colleen Pagano) ban Julie from the ride for being a “loose woman” and allowing her barker, Billy Bigelow (Trevor Martin), to put his arm around her waist. She also reprimands Billy who decides to mock his jealous boss and ends up losing his job. As does Julie for agreeing to sit alone with him on a bench after hours, thus missing her curfew at the mill factory’s dormitory. These two are obviously fond of each other, but won’t admit to love, singing the popular number, “If I Loved You.” We are immediately impressed by Billy’s rich baritone, whose dynamite vocals continue to astound us throughout the show.

The hits keep on coming. Kind Netty Fowler’s (Dalia Aleman) oceanfront spa provides a lovely natural setting for my favorite exuberant number, “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” starring Nettie, Carrie & Chorus. Then, after a “Mister Snow” reprise, we are treated to a tender reflection by contented parents spending a quiet night at home with “When the Children are Asleep,” starring deep-voiced Enoch Snow (Sean Birkett) and Carrie. 

So far it’s all innocence and light – maybe too innocent. Our equanimity is soon disturbed when gullible young adults become easy marks for unscrupulous scoundrels, particularly ex-con and recognized ne’er-do-well, Jigger Craigin (Larry Buzzeo). At home at sea, free from land-locked rules of morality, Jigger, Billy and a rowdy crew of sailors sing the defiant “Blow High, Blow Low,” A-whalin’ we will go!

Jigger doesn’t think twice about seducing happily engaged Carrie with a phony story about teaching her how to protect herself from unwanted attention by aggressive men (while illustrating moves that allow him to feel her up). We can’t help but cringe at her gullibility, then watch in despair when her fiance catches him carrying her over his shoulder to escape a non-existent fire. Simple and traditional, Enoch’s immediate, horrified response almost shatters any hope of a happy future for the couple.

Thankfully, in Act II, we discover that forgiveness lives in Enoch’s heart as well. Despite Jigger’s “Stonecutters Cut it on Stone” declaration that “There’s nothin’ so bad for a woman, As a man who thinks he’s good!” 

Proclaiming their love of freedom and the open seas, local Maine fishermen hoof it up in
The Wick’s glorious production of CAROUSEL, playing through March 24. Photo by Amy Pasquantonio.

But while the good guys – Nettie, Julie, Carrie, Enoch & Chorus – sing cheerily about “A Real Nice Clambake,” Jigger schemes to convince jobless Billy to join him in a robbery, even a murder, for a cash windfall to support his now pregnant wife, Julie. You want to shout at Billy to not be an idiot … and why would anyone in their right mind (even if they had no morals) join forces with a repeat offender who always gets caught?

The inevitable happens. Still there is always solace to be found in the good people around you: Julie and Nettie impress in “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” another perennial favorite that’s also reprised for the final number. My apologies for not mentioning sooner the smooth, invisible hand of great direction by Jeffry George, musical direction by Bobby Peaco, and Simon Coulthard’s choreography that went from waltzing couples to fast-and-furious all-male showstoppers, dazzling high-steppin’ ladies and suitable, snazzy dance accompaniments to most every song.

Toward the very end, a barefoot “Ballet” number that takes place on the beach 15 years in the future – starring Billy and Julie’s now grown teenage daughter Louise (Abigail Marie Curran) – is a breathtaking wonder to behold. Unlike the heavy, multi-layered skirts worn by the other female characters, she’s an ethereal vision in soft pink as she treats us to a delightful, lengthy exhibition of her ballet-style prowess. 

I absolutely hated to see that even over a century ago, social barbs and ostracism (concerning events that took place 15 years in the past, no less) could bring a young person to contemplate suicide. Playwrights recognized such issues existed since time immemorial, but at least in the old days you knew, and could face up to, your accusers. How much worse it must be nowadays where anyone can be maligned from the shielding anonymity of social media. And we still haven’t figured out how to inoculate our young people from unfair stigmatization and social harm. 

“Carousel” is a lovely ride to the past – the good, the bad, the ugly. But like the merry-go-round, itself, seems like our world and its issues always come full circle. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if each and every one of us decided to jump off and work toward a foreseeable brighter future.

Don’t miss your chance to ride a real carousel and see this audience-favorite that’s been selling out so fast, several more shows have already been added. CAROUSEL, with music by Richard Rodgers, book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, is playing through March 24 at The Wick Theatre & Museum Club, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton 33487. For tickets go www.thewick.org. Or call the Box Office at 561-995-2333.

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