Opera House Theatre Company opens their new season with a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” which embodies the magic of theatre. Lighting designer Dallas LaFon sets the tone for the evening with a gobo of a carousel against red velvet drapes. It is the first hint the evening will be a dreamy distraction from daily life. The opening “Carousel Waltz” must be spectacular in order to catapult audiences into the show’s world; this rendition does it completely without reservation.
The show opens in a sewing mill at the end of the work day, as girls head out to a seaside carnival. The transformation of the stage is incredible. Terry Collins’ set pieces fly in and out at lightning speed (thanks to the fly crew’s chief, Aaron Willings) and Lafon’s inspired use of color and light. It creates beauty, magic, mystery, and romance. The girls take a ride on a carousel where they meet the barker Billy Bigelow (Nygel Robinson) and carousel owner Mrs. Mullin (Katherine Vernon).
Two of the girls, Julie Jordan (Kendra Goehring-Garrett) and Carrie Pipperidge (Lauren Mazzola), have an interesting confrontation with Billy and Mrs. Mullin. It leaves Billy unemployed and Julie teetering on the precipice of ruin. They contemplate their respective fates in “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” and Carrie’s impending marriage to Enoch Snow (Ashley Grantham) in “Mister Snow.” Both songs showcase Mazzola’s beautifully operatic voice, but Julie and Billy’s duet, “If I Loved You,” is what I was waiting for: the chance to hear Goehring-Garrett and Robinson sing a love song together again. If anyone missed them in “Oklahoma!” or “Kiss Me Kate,” make sure to catch them together in this show. Their chemistry must be experienced to be believed. It is not just how they both covet beautiful singing voices or even how they can dance circles around mere mortals; they both are accomplished actors who create very complex, troubled characters for whom audiences want to root.
Director Ray Kennedy chose to move the setting from the Victorian era to the Great Depression—though, it’s still in a seaside town, just in Maine. The change of setting really ups the ante when both Julie and Billy lose their jobs. It also draws a striking line of the difference in choices Julie and Carrie make: Julie falls for the passionate, erratic carnie. Carrie chooses the steady puritan, Enoch Snow. Grantham’s depiction of the uptight, determined fisherman manages to combine a rigid sensibility and insecurity with a real tenderness. “When the Children Are Asleep” sets up that characterization, but without Grantham and Mazzola’s performances, it would be empty.
Though Billy is anything but stable or settled, he means well in his own way—unlike, say, Jigger Craigin (Justin Smith). Criggin truly is a selfish man who delights not just in taking from others but destroying their lives in the process. Jigger is a survivor; he’s not funny, but he is the biggest life of the party as both “Blow High, Blow Low” (the anthem to bar fights everywhere) and “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone” show the audience. Smith is blessed with height and a presence to match. If he’s the guy starting the chant, everyone’s going to join in, but he’ll leave behind one who’s caught holding the bag. Just ask Billy. He finds out first hand when he meets a starkeeper (Dan Morris).
If I ever found myself in need of some heavenly advice and intervention, Morris is probably one of the guys I’d like to have on my side. He doesn’t overplay his hand: It’s just a simple conversation between someone who has figured out a few more things and is trying to help another fella, who happens to have perfected the art of being his own worst enemy.
Make no mistake, the whole stage is filled with talent, as is the 14-piece band in the orchestra pit led by Lorene Walsh. The lush vocal and musical landscape is a delight to the ear. It complements the stunningly gorgeous visual world that Kennedy and his design team have created. Selina Harvey’s costumes are spot-on for the period: lots of fading colors as poverty creeps into people’s lives and their hopes become brittle. The Snows’ hard work for prosperity and the changing world are nodded to in Act Two to show time passing.
For all the emotional uncertainty and intensity of Act One, the real story happens in Act Two. That’s when Julie and her daughter, Louise (Jessi Goei), both come to terms with the reality of what living in a community means: It’s just as much about what’s put into it as what’s taken out of it. One of the most famous songs from the show is “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” For Louise to realize the power of that message is imperative for Billy’s journey—and really for all of us. That’s part of why “Carousel” continues to be relevant. It’s a beautiful, simple message we can too easily forget.
If this is indicative of what we can expect from Opera House’s season, it is going to be a wonderful year. The design team clearly has magic at their fingertips, and the performances are incredible. Seriously, Nygel Robinson is going to be on Broadway soon and you’ll have to pay more than a $100 a ticket to see him perform. So why not head to Thalian Hall, first? It’s a bargain—especially to watch him perform with Goering-Garrett. It’s priceless.