By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle
As you wait for the overture, the stage curtain by scenic designer Michael Schweikardt stuns with its fine-arts perfection, evoking the sweeping panorama of the big sky over the rocky coast of Maine.
When the pantomimed prologue gracefully unfolds and Richard Rodgers’ evocative “Carousel Waltz” pleasantly fills the theater, and the boldly silhouetted horses of the carousel spin, it’s obvious that this will be a night to remember. And in the silence of a pantomime James Snyder as Billy Bigelow and Teal Wicks as Julie Jordan emotionally connect in a love story which is both joyous and sorrowful.
By the second scene, when we hear the glorious voice of the charismatic Jenn Gambatese as Carrie Pipperidge sing “Mr. Snow” with girlishly giddy romantic enthusiasm, and then revel in a duet as Julie and Billy sing the melodious and poignant ‘If I Loved You,’ we know these are three Broadway-quality voices that we can’t wait to hear again and again. When Carrie’s man, Enoch Snow, stealthily arrives, he’s everything that she has sung about. Handsome Jeff Kready convinces us in song that as Mr. Snow he’s been out on a herring boat for months, and now it’s time for him to take a bride. Here’s yet another great voice when Jeff wistfully sings “When The Children Are Asleep.” The distinctive and well-composed music of Richard Rodgers engages the audience in every scene.
But wait, there’s more! The beautiful women and handsome men of the ensemble joyously celebrate the coming of spring in “June is Bustin’ Out All Over.” Spinning, twirling, leaping and flying high, the boys and girls fill the stage with gracefully lovely feminine movement and the swaggering ballsiness of virile male youth.
James Snyder’s talent as a powerful singer and actor hits the heights as he wonders, as Billy Bigelow would, what his future son will be like when he sings the “Soliloquy,” which many may only know as “My Boy Bill/My Little Girl”. As the song reaches its crescendo, we are not only thrilled with Mr. Snyder’s voice but emotionally uplifted by his honest interpretation of Billy’s determination to do right by his future child. It’s with this soliloquy that Billy shows his inner emotion which is impossible for him to display in his stunted interpersonal relationships. He’s now vulnerable, and has a purpose in life, which diminishes his swagger just a bit.
The always wonderful Ronn Carroll as the Starkeeper/Doctor Seldon shows us what great acting is all about with his superb interpretations of these two characters. Deanne Lorette gives us pause to offer sympathy for carousel-owner Mrs. Mullin, whose unrequited love for Billy Bigelow makes her life an empty shell to only be filled with work to diminish the pain of her longing.
Anne Kanengeiser’s superb performance as Nettie Fowler soothes Julie with the hopeful anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and Tally Sessions is both creepy and funny as Jigger, the villain of the piece. And yes, these are two more voices to be celebrated and applauded!
Director Rob Ruggiero has brilliantly guided the cast to avoid what could have been contrived sentimentality and to deliver believable emotions. When the characters laugh, they really laugh, when they cry, you want to cry with them. Rob has infused the characters with dimensionality, no wooden stick figures here. Each actor brings complexity to his or her character and the words of Oscar Hammerstein’s book and lyrics take on new life in the hands of Rob Ruggiero. He imbues this outstanding cast with his great story-telling talents that brings an edgy believability to the central relationship of the damaged Billy and Julie and those around them as they live through storms and fair weather.
Working with costume designer Alejo Vietti, scenic designer Michael Schweikardt, lighting designer John Lasiter and sound designer Jay Hilton, Rob successfully collaborates with each one to get just the right effects that support the story and the players.
Musical director Michael O’Flaherty works with some of the finest musicians in the Northeast: F. Wade Russo, Karin Fagerburg, Mark Slater, David Kayser, Liz Baker Smith, Michael Schuster and Salvatore Ranniello. They make Richard Rodger’s glorious musical score, brilliantly orchestrated here by Dan DeLange, reason enough to see and hear this magnificent production. The sound made by these few musicians is as big as any great Broadway pit orchestra.
Many of the musicals of the 40’s and 50’s had ‘dream ballets’ forced into the shows. They were often poorly choreographed; they didn’t serve character or story.
In Goodspeed’s “Carousel” Parker Esse has made each balletic movement a perfect line of story. Working with the lovely Eloise Kropp as Billy and Julie’s daughter, Louise, the ballet works as a wordless yet understandable interpretation of Louise’s teenage angst in being an outsider. Her pas de deux with the dazzling Sam Rogers as the ‘dream barker,’ a character similar to her deceased father, is a beautifully fluid and exciting example of dance that clearly tells a story.
The voices of the ensemble blend harmoniously in the choral pieces A Real Nice Clambake” and in the finale “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which, to our chagrin, some of the audience were singing along! The male chorus singing about whaling in “Blow High, Blow Low” underlines the heartiness and camaraderie of men who fearlessly go out to sea on boats, and this cast sang it with the believable gusto of able seamen.
Director Rob Ruggiero said he “began with anchoring the production to this very specific world of a small fishing village in Maine.” He has achieved a more natural and honest treatment of the show that deserves to become firmly anchored as the quintessential “Carousel.”
He and the rest of the talented production group at Goodspeed Musicals continue to provide the highest standard of theater in Connecticut. And this stunningly beautiful and rousing “Carousel” does the legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein proud.
Due to ticket demand, “Carousel” has been extended through September 29, 2012. Call the box office at 860.873.8668. It is open seven days a week, or on-line at www.goodspeed.org. Prices are $31.50 to $72.50. Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main Street, East Haddam, Connecticut.