The opening moments of “Carousel,” the current production at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre, build to a visual and orchestral climax that received spontaneous and well-deserved applause from the Wednesday evening audience.
The show’s “Prologue” (aka “The Carousel Waltz”) is admittedly one of the most difficult portions of any production. At almos five minutes in length, it sets the scene and introduces the characters and their connections without words. No wonder that audience interest can stay or go based on its impact.
There was no doubt of the impact in this version of the classic musical. It was indeed theatrical “magic” as the dark and grimy world of Bascombe’s mill was transformed into the glittering and colorful carnival atmosphere with the whirling carousel as the main attraction.
“Carousel” is the second of the “big five” from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. All are based on existing texts, a format which brought much more success to the R&H team than working “from scratch.”
It debuted on Broadway in 1945 and was based on “Liliom” a 1909 play by Hungarian author Ferenc Molnar. Transferring the setting from Budapest to the coast of Maine, R&H created an incredibly lyrical work called by Time magazine “The Best Musical of the 20th Century.”
Whether you agree with that or not, the WW production is definitely on the plus side. Stepping aside from his duties as director/choreographer, artistic director Scott Michaels has turned the reins of this “Carousel” over to annual guest director Tony Humrichouser and guest choreographer Lesa Dencklau. Both are assisted immeasurably by Patrick Chan’s lighting design, Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s wonderfully colorful costumes, Thomas N. Stirling’s always amazing orchestra (there are 10 musicians in the “Carousel” pit and they definitely do justice to the marvelous R&H score), and the outstanding set design (which includes the mill-to-carnival transformation) by the very talented David Lepor.
And, as always, it doesn’t hurt to have a cast full of excellent singers and dancers.
Leading them in the vocal department are Annie Yokum as the long-suffering-but-always-true heroine, Julie Jordan, and Matthew Janisse as her swaggering-but-insecure husband, carousel barker Billy Bigelow. Both have excellent voices and more than do justice to the now-classic ballads assigned to their characters. Considering their lightening-swift meeting-to-marriage relationship, however, a more visible connection, emotional and physical, would help in establishing the believability of this instantaneous bond.
“Carousel” scene stealer is Erika Henningsen as Julie’s BFF Carrie Pipperidge, a spunky bundle of 19th century individualism who never takes her eyes off the prize which, in this case, is equally-focused Enoch Snow (Dan Smith), a sturdy gentleman who envisions the growth of his fishing fleet and their family in the delightful duet, “When the Children Are Asleep.”
Among the many melodies that have lives outside of the “Carousel” score are two interpreted here by the very excellent Kira Lace Hawkins as Nettie Fowler. In her hands (and voice), Nettie is the prototype of a rugged New England woman. Whether urging young people to kick up their heels (“June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”) or comforting a stricken Julie (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”), Hawkins never lets her character become caricature and her solid soprano adds depth to the R&H hymn.
An important segment of the second act is Billy’s celestial observance of his teen-age daughter Louise, running on the beach, facing the taunts of her peers and sharing her father’s fascination with the carnival. This is depicted in a ballet and, very happily, the role of Louise is danced with haunting lyricism by young Grace Robinson. Dencklau’s choreography is decidedly more balletic in tone, very positive here and too soft only in the hearty hornpipe “Blow High, Blow Low.”
To those who have seen “Carousel” more times than they care to remember (it is a perennial favorite on community and high school stages), this is a production with which to refresh your memoryin the most positive way.
For those who have never had the pleasure, it is definitely time to take this ride.
“CAROUSEL” plays through June 14 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call 267-8041 or (866) 823-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.org.