When I was about 12 years old my family acquired a 45 RPM soundtrack album of the then current 1956 movie hit, “Carousel,” based on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit Broadway show of the same name. It starred Shirley Jones and Gordon MacCrae and featured an Overture that I found so enchanting I would listen to it by the hour. When I reached high school I was awarded a “Best Supporting Actor” trophy for my performance in Molnar’s “Liliom,” the stage play on which R&H based their poignant musical. And many years later I was privileged to see New York’s Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center Production which will always rank among the top ten most magical theater experiences of my lifetime. Now, at last, Carousel has “come home to The Woodlands,” by way of the fine Montgomery College Theatre Department.
The show opened on a wide stage that was all too often bare. An iron framework backstage suggests the outline of the town. The first scene, with Overture, was well staged as we see the carnival and carousel constructed right before our eyes. The large cast assembles on stage and includes perhaps a dozen young children, lots of balloons, and even a talented dog named Pooka to add to the carnival atmosphere. The whirl of this “Carousel” would go on to feature numerous musical delights, as well as some theatrical weaknesses that might be addressed in future productions.
Directed by Ellen Ketchum, the show tells the story of a New England carnival barker, Billy Bigelow (David Kerr), and his ill-fated romance with factory worker, Julie Jordan (Kim Bryant). Erin Roche, a very talented young singer, gives a first rate portrayal as Julie’s girlfriend, Carrie. She radiates confident vocal skill, readily connects with the audience, and has a beaming smile as bright as her voice. Carrie’s love interest is Mr. Enoch Snow (Chris Thomas). Thomas, fresh from a fine portrayal as Fredrik in last season’s “A Little Night Music,” offers a stammering, and heavy-handed characterization of Mr. Snow that was a bit too over-the-top in its quest for comedy. Thomas was also Scenic Designer on this production.
Ellen Perez sneers her way through the unsavory role of Billy’s selfish carnival boss, Mrs. Mullin. Jennie Nabors shows vocal potential with some fine moments in the role of Nettie. A first time entrant to M.C. productions is talented Robert Evans. His fine, rich voice suggests he will be a big player in the future. I hope I was not prejudiced by the fact that his role as Billy’s trouble-seeking friend, Jigger, is the part I once played in the non-musical play, Liliom. Evans also got some of the best laugh lines of the night (I.E.: “My mother had a baby once,” and the pick-up line, “For you I’d swim through beer with my mouth closed!”)
Staged in “modern dress,” (Costumer, Lauren Gibson) the show had a “cheesy” look to it that did not appeal to this viewer. I regret the costume focus on trashy characterizations for many of the ladies. It even extended to a clumsy outfit for Hilary Bryant as she danced what could have been a more graceful ballet in her role as Billy’s grown daughter, Louise. A feminine dance costume would have enhanced her performance and taken us, at least briefly, out of the tawdriness of this carnival world. But there were many moments of fine dance thanks to choreographers, Amber Gensbigler, and Robert Evans, as well as noted Swiss choreographer, Kate Ketchum, who has been a guest teacher with the Houston Ballet. The lighting designs of Justin Woods offered little variety to the visual look of a largely empty stage. The backstage area obscuring Musical Director, Lee Barrow and orchestra, was too visible and spotlights should have focused on smaller areas on stage. Another frequent problem was a tendency of the actors to root themselves in one spot and not move about naturally. While Miss Bryant showed some promise as a vocalist, she seemed much to stiff and brooding to convey the warmth of Julie.
But enough of my cranky critic’s complaints! What a delightful “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” we had from Nettie, Carrie, and full chorus. Kerr’s vocal strength and ability to visualize are clear in the nice duet of “If I Loved You” with Bryant. (But the symbolic blossoms should have floated down on stage for one of theater’s most poignant moments.) The “Mister Snow” from Carrie and Julie is lovely, and gets even better when the gals in the cast join in. Thomas and Roche do well together in “When the Children Are Asleep,” as her well-trained voice soars. Then the gents offer a lusty “Blow High, Blow Low” solidly led by Kerr and Evans. Kerr also provides a richly resonant and very pleasing “Soliloquy.”
Act II had its own special joys beginning with perhaps the best choral singing of the night in “A Real Nice Clambake.” Evans leads the ensemble in a rousing “Stonecutters Cut It On Stone.” Lacking vocal punch at first, Bryant’s “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” really catches fire when the ladies join her. I dare not reveal the outcome of the trouble Billy and Jigger get into. But if you survive all that you will be rewarded with a touching finale of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” that brought tears to many an eye before the standing ovation. As for me, I’m proud to be able to report on the efforts of this fine company. After all, as the angel remarks just before the curtain falls, “As long as there’s someone on Earth who remembers you, it’s not over.”
“Carousel” will be performed at The Woodlands campus of Montgomery College with evening performances at 7:30 p.m. this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, April 1-3 and a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee on April 4th. The college will also offer an optional pre-theater dinner at 6p.m. prior to the Friday and Saturday performances. For tickets to show, and/or dinner call 936-273-SHOW (7469) or 936-273-7021.
(The Courier 3.29.04)
(The Villager 4.1.04)