I wouldn’t say that I’m the biggest fan of Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals and many other musicals of that and earlier eras, but I figured I should give Carousel a chance to appeal to me on the stage where it didn’t on the screen… I think I fell asleep during that Midday Movie, and that’s been my only real experience with the musical to date. Generally, I find many shows written pre-1970 to be somewhat outdated, mundane or difficult to enjoy, and I often flippantly lump the likes of Brigadoon, Kiss me Kate, Oklahoma!, Camelot, The Music Man, High Society – to name a few – into the ‘avoid if possible’ category. I even bought the Rodgers and Hammerstein 12-disc celebration box-set just because I figured it should be in my DVD collection as a so-called music theatre buff (note: it was 50% off). It’s still in its wrapping some years later.
Maybe I’ve just seen some less than appealing productions that have left me jaded? Maybe it’s a generation thing and I would get more excited over R&H if I were a baby boomer? I’m not sure. But somehow, I found Carousel offers a book and score that I found more appealing than most of its contemporaries that I’ve been exposed to. In any case, I’m rethinking my stance on the flippant lumping, as this production of Carousel is highly enjoyable and treats its audience with a modern and fresh finish on a classic piece of theatre.
The experienced production team are to be commended for their artistic execution. Overall, the production is beautiful to watch. Chris Bradtke leads the team as director and his vision is evident. Bradtke keeps it simple and adopts a minimalist approach to respectfully feature the book and score while visually presenting the musical as a 21st century piece of theatre.
The successful direction of this piece goes hand in hand with the set design and lighting, which are the artistic and technical triumphs of the show. The set design, by David Dare, whilst simple and contained in its structure, keeps the stage sparse and effectively depicts each location. The waterfront is my personal favourite setting for its washed cool grey finish. The heaven setting is also impressively consistent within the piece, but further highlights that we were watching a 21st century presentation of a mid-20th century musical. The production also makes good use of a revolve which not only spins the title set – the carousel – but also helps to depict transitions from one location to the next.
The lighting design by Jason Bovaird thoroughly complements the set and fills in the sparseness created by its aforementioned contained nature. Bovaird paints the stage like a fine artist taking watercolour to canvas. His use of colour is bold, bright and warm; and the textures he uses to fill and speckle the stage are just stunning.
The costume design by Elia Katsiabanis retains a traditional approach while incorporating bold colours to help achieve a modern sense about the 1870’s fashion. The finishes on the costumes remain appropriate to the period, and particularly pleasing is the attention to detail, depicting the difference in fashion style after the story jumps forward 15 years.
Musical director Ryan Jacobs creates a strong and rich sound with his cast. Ensemble harmonies are tight and colourful throughout the production and even when the girls leave the boys to their own number in ‘Blow High, Blow Low’, the quality of the vocal is robust and satisfying. Jacobs keeps the show flowing at a good pace, but unfortunately on opening night, it felt like some members of the orchestra weren’t confident with some of the intricate harmonies they were playing. This is especially obvious in instrumental numbers such as ‘Prologue/ The Carousel Waltz’ where there are no vocals to hide behind. The sound design and operation, by Greg Ginger and Calum Mclure respectively, are consistent and on the ball throughout.
Di Crough choreographs the cast effectively, layering the movement on stage while highlighting the varied dance and movement strengths of the cast to create interesting and varied sequences through many of the dance numbers. The ensemble are well polished. Most impressively, the Ballet in act two moves fluidly and defines the 15 year jump forward with a new spirit. Eliza Mignot as the troubled Louise Bigelow is a standout through this.
The story opens on the fair ground and we see the people of Maine, New England fill the stage as the prologue plays. A carousel is constructed before us and the cleverly designed structure impresses. Upon completion, the carousel lights up with panels of led lighting which receives the audience’s first round of applause. As the scene draws to an end, the carousel is packed up. I couldn’t help feeling that the prologue would have benefited from either setting the up the carousel or taking it down, but not both. I would have liked the horses painted in finer detail, as they looked rather two-dimensional in comparison to the rest of the show’s set. In conjunction with the turning revolve, the carousel made for a very impressive structure. I would have liked to have seen it make a reappearance in later scenes, as after it was so well established at the beginning, it was almost disappointing that it we didn’t get to see it again.
Lauren McCormack delights as she bounds onto the stage with warm energy. In the role of Carrie Pipperidge, she kicks the story into gear with a sweetly sung ‘Mister Snow’. She is confident and shows of her dulcet tones in the role. Her on-stage best friend Julie Jordan is played by Allie Sutherland. Sutherland gives a mature and sensitive portrayal of her character who grapples with her heart as she falls in love with a man who doesn’t fit the social norms. She sings with equally melodious vocals, and provides one of the show’s musical highlights in ‘If I Loved You’.
Andrew Pennycuick enters with a confident stage presence and as Billy Bigelow. At times, you find it hard to consider him a brutish thug, but this works for him ultimately as the character reveals a genuine caring side by the end. His voice is in fine form and he provides an endearing performance of renowned music-theatre favourite, ‘Soliloquy’. Through Bigelow’s journey, Pennycuick portrays a man who struggles to show affection, admiration and pride in his family. As he grows in his ability to show and embrace these qualities by the final scenes, I would have liked the character to have been acknowledged with more awareness by his wife and daughter in the show’s final moments, to provide a little more closure on the relationships at hand.
Brett O’Meara squares off the set of couples as Enoch Snow. His character is thoroughly entertaining in the younger years and he shows off a rich tone in his baritone range. As the older Mr Snow, we see that he has grown into a slightly stiffer gentleman – a realistic transition given the eight children in tow.
Stalwart Lee Threadgold steals every scene he is in as Jigger Craigin, and although the ‘bad guy’ of the piece, he is compelling and brings a comical edge to the story. Felicity Eastwood is delightful as Nettie Fowler. She initially reminded me of a Mary Poppins of sorts with a ‘practically perfect’, firm but fair demeanour. Her rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ allows her to really show off her talents. Her voice cuts clearly through the cast in the emotionally charged moment. Katie Hall adds some extra fun to the piece as the over-the-top busybody Mrs Mullins.
This production is of the highest quality. If I’ve found smaller details in it that I would have like to have seen enhanced, it’s only because many of the production’s values come close to a professional standard.
As I finish this review, I come back to my original pondering… Why did I enjoy this production so much more than anticipated? I had a feeling going in that it would be a good production; I just wasn’t predisposed to it being an enjoyable show. Maybe I can enjoy the classic musicals more than I thought. And if you generally find yourself in the same boat as me, maybe you can too. It’s possible that the ‘classics’ aren’t simply outdated and mundane. Turns out, it’s all about how they’re presented. Maybe, all a ‘classic’ needs to appeal to a 21st century audience is a fresh coat of paint… a contemporary vision.
If you shared my earlier views on the classics, go see this production. You’ll probably walk out pleasantly surprised too. And when you see that one of the classics can be this enjoyable, it may just provide more appreciation for that unopened box-set.