Quick: what Broadway show did Time Magazine name as the “best musical of the 20th century” in its 1999 “Best of the Century” list and composer Richard Rodgers describe as his all-time favorite in his autobiography Musical Stages?
Carousel. Surprised? If you had the good fortune to attend Denton Community Theatre’s recent production at The Campus Theatre in downtown Denton, you‘d understand why. The music takes your breath away. How it’s naturally interwoven into the dialogue with a nod to classical opera recitative weaves an auditory magic unrivalled by many other musical theatre shows.
Carousel is truly all about the music. Director Sharon Veselic chose wisely to emphasize the music over plot and dialogue in her production, infusing this 1945 classic with a fresh vitality far beyond nostalgic re-tread. Instead of placing her orchestra conventionally in front of the proscenium arch at The Campus Theatre, in front of the singers, she placed an uncluttered full stage width thrust runway downstage where her lead singers performed the majority of Carousel’s solo tunes so close to the audience they seemed part of an intimate concert. The orchestra remained in full view of the audience, dimly lit, elevated centrally behind the runway. Full ensemble choral numbers and the balletic dancers used an upstage level behind and slightly above the orchestra and swept down side stairways to spill into the downstage space when crowd scenes required. Veselic’s production revealed excellent use of a large cast on three different levels, while the ever-visible musicians kept the audience aware of the work’s dream-like magical ambience and accompanied the singers so that their voices held full focus. Projections of night sky full of stars, realistic photos of a fishing village and fanciful watercolor renderings of fishing scenes rotated off a screen mounted far upstage, the closest thing to a “set” in this production. Marvelous and free-spirited, Philip Lamb’s artwork projections gave just enough suggestion of “place” to ground the action in a New England fishing village without interfering with movement or seeming trite; Brad Speck’s lighting design and special effects enhanced the romantic mood and sustained the dream world quality of the performance throughout. In front of this effective, inventive artistry, the singers opened their throats and poured forth Richard Rodgers’ beautiful score.
The word “community” when associated with theatre can convey a less than professional quality performance. Amateur wannabes, folks with real day jobs, just a social outlet. In this production’s case, it meant that a community of fine artists gathered together to create a stunning performance. Keith Warren as male lead Billy Bigelow (the gutter-born carnival worker trying desperately to transcend his seedy life through love) brought richly soaring depth and passionate expression to his solos. The emotional content—Billy’s conflicted soul and desire to “make good”—came through more clearly with each song’s passing. His rendition of “Soliloquy” at the end of Act 1 was so powerfully and evocatively sung it would not have surprised me had the audience demanded an encore. A lovely pairing with Sarah Geist as Billy’s suffering girlfriend/wife Julie Jordan, the two leads voices shone solo and blended superbly in duet performance. Erika Ostermiller and Shane Strawbridge as secondary leads Carrie and Mr. Snow provided comic contrast and vocal balance to the tragically dark emotions of the main leads. Their imaginative Act 1 duet “When the Children Are Asleep” was almost a showstopper and exuded playful warmth as well as showcased their respectively fine voices. Act 2’s “Ballet”, featuring Emily Staniszewski choreographed by Katherine Gentsch, matched the high caliber singing in its professionalism and innovative interpretation. Over forty people performed in this Carousel, leads to ensemble; tempos, harmony, stage movement, attitude and expression all worked smoothly in concert to create memorable stage pictures as well as sharp musical definition. Hardly a dry eye in the full house at show’s conclusion. One certainly doesn’t need to drive to Dallas performance halls to enjoy excellent musical theatre performance in this region.
The original production of Carousel opened on Broadway on April 19, 1945, and ran for eight hundred ninety performances. It was considered innovative for its time, with its criminal anti-hero leading character, tragic plot and daring theme of spousal abuse. Based on Ferenc Molnar’s award-winning 19th century play set in Hungary, Lilliom, Rogers and Hammerstein lightened it up a bit for American audiences. In 1994 Carousel was revived as a joint production of The Royal National Theatre and Lincoln Center Theater, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, an interracial production featuring Michael Hayden. The revival won five Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical, best direction, best choreography. It won five Drama Desk Awards. Audra McDonald, in her first Broadway role, won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. McDonald and Hayden received the Theatre World Award. A Japanese tour was followed in 1996/1997 by a major US national tour.