November 26, 2014

No ups and downs on Goodspeed’s “Carousel”

“Ride on the merry-go-round, ride a mile for a nickel,” sings James Snyder at the Goodspeed Opera House.—Diane Sobolewski

“Ride on the merry-go-round, ride a mile for a nickel,” sings James Snyder at the Goodspeed Opera House.—Diane Sobolewski“Ride on the merry-go-round, ride a mile for a nickel,” sings James Snyder at the Goodspeed Opera House.—Diane SobolewskiAs distinct as it is gay and alluring, carousel music fills the air in East Haddam and has people turning their heads looking for the source. They soon discover that there is neither an amusement park nor a carnival nearby. It is only when they climb the steps to the Goodspeed Opera House, that they realize that like the Pied Piper, the happy melody is playing here and has drawn them to a performance of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” now on the Goodspeed stage. And what a production it is. 

Directed by Rob Ruggiero, a master of timing and romantic vision, never has a production of this show passed so quickly and so emotionally. The audience is reluctant to leave, even after a standing ovation. It’s too easy to say it’s because the star of the show, James Snyder as Billy Bigelow, is such a mesmerizing tenor. It’s not enough to say that when he sings, he carves the words of Hammerstein and the music of Rodgers deep into heart and mind. It’s the whole production that succeeds. It confirms what so many critics claim, which is that “Carousel” is the best musical of the 20th century.  

Erin Davie has replaced Teal Wicks as the naēve and shy Julie Jordan, the factory worker “good” girl. Julie falls in love with carousel barker “bad boy” Billy. Davie is quite charming and fits the role well. Together Davie and Snyder make beautiful and memorable music. They are not alone. Carrie and Mister Snow are another couple of lovers. Jenn Gambatese as Julie’s best friend Carrie adds a liveliness to the part that has too seldom been rendered. Jeff Kready as Enoch Snow plays the love of Carrie’s life and has an infectious and contagious laugh that never fails to engage the audience. Both of these actors add the comic relief so necessary as Julie and Billy’s sad story plays out. 

Billy is a proud and stubborn man who marries Julie, but falls on hard times. He takes it out on his wife and she forgives his inexcusable behavior. Indeed, one of the most controversial issues with this musical is that Billy beats his wife, yet Julie explains that it doesn’t hurt. When Julie announces that she is pregnant, Billy becomes so desperate for money that he becomes involved in a robbery and loses his life before his child is born. In this show that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get to see her. Billy gets one chance to come down to earth to do one good deed before his final judgment. Even though he hits his daughter, he does end up helping her. Corporal punishment in this play belongs to the age and era that the play was written in. It is part of history and that is where it belongs. 

All of the actors in this production perform brilliantly. That includes Anne Kanengeiser, as Nettie, who sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with such passion and conviction that she inspires  the whole audience. Tally Sessions plays the bad influence on Billy superbly. Actually, there’s not a down turn to this upbeat production. Even the ballet scene, that often drags on, is danced by Eloise Kropp with fluidity and uncommon sensuality. Even the shadowy carousel projected on a symbolic set of sky and sea by set designer Michael Schweikardt reflects the depth and breadth of this fabulous musical. It plays through Sept. 29. Box office: 860-873-8668.

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association, and covers art and culture in a blog for CBS National and CBS-CT.  She welcomes comments. Contact: jgrochman@gmail.com