Light Opera Works’ ‘Carousel’ has all the pageantry, but little passion

Natalie Ford (Julie Jordan) and Cooper David Grodin (Billy Bigelow) sing and look pretty.

There’s a lot to love in Light Opera Work’s Carousel. The 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is given a full-bodied staging with a sumptuous 30-piece orchestra (conducted by Roger L. Bingaman), colorful costume design (Nikki Delhomme) and impressive settings (by scenic designer Tom Burch). Some lovely voices service the score well, and the dream ballet, choreographed by Stacey Flaster, is exquisitely executed by Todd Rhoads and Nicole Miller. The pieces are all there to create a powerful production of this emotionally resonant piece.

However, Flaster aslo directed the show, and it’s here were things need some work. To be frank, the voices are pretty, but the acting ranges from flat to non-existent.

Take the “bench scene,” for example. This is a classic musical theatre moment where the pompous carousel barker Billy Bigelow and the naive, but curious, Julie Jordan forge their tumultuous relationship. Strangely, it’s also one of the very few scenes where they are together. A lot needs to happen during these 20 minutes to make us understand why they are so deeply and instantly pulled to one another. The chemistry should be palpable — the entire show hinges on it.

However, Natalie Ford as Julie (looking a LOT like Judy Garland circa the “Wizard of Oz” years) simply sits with a bemused look on her face, while Cooper David Grodin, whose characterization of Billy seems entirely based on puffing up his chest and strutting about, sings out to the audience. While strongly sung, the scene is as disappointing as a clambake minus the clams.

And from there, things pretty much stay the same. Lots of indicating, smiling while singing, broad gesturing, and fussy stage business by ensemble members who have fallen back on ham-fisted, reaction-based “acting.” It’s really distracting.

However, there are a few “geraniums in the winter,” so to speak. Jeremy Trager makes for a uniquely complex Jigger, beefing up every scene he’s in. And Elizabeth Lanza’s Carrie Pipperidge manages to find her spunk late in act two, after she’s had her nine kids (who are wearing costumes courtesy of the Von Trapp family) with Enoch Snow, who’s played winningly by George Keating. Acclaimed soprano Winifred Faix Brown as Nettie struggles with her vocal break in “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” but gives a stirring “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I should note that the final moments of the piece, where Billy comes back from beyond to make amends, are well played and artfully directed. My theatre companion, who shared my feelings on the show, admitted he got misty-eyed in the final graduation scene. Yet, it’s all a little too late.

But that orchestra? Sublime.

“Carousel” plays through August 29 at the Cahn Auditorium in Evanston. More information here >

3 thoughts on “Light Opera Works’ ‘Carousel’ has all the pageantry, but little passion

  1. Any comment on my Katherine Condit as Mrs. Mullin? A very supporting role, I know, but that’s the main reason I’m trekking up there. (Disclaimer: She is a dear colleague of mine, but Bob knows that already.)

    1. Katherine is under-used, but pretty fierce in her small role. And she has a fantastic costume and wig. Though, her New England accent does tend to go a little cockney at points.

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