Amidst tragedy in our world, Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston shines with its bright and hopeful production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Under the skillful and innovative direction of Director-Choreographer Rachel Bertone, and a heavenly cast of Boston-favorite performers, Carousel becomes a “can’t be missed” production about missed opportunities, second chances, and the power of love and hope from within the darkness.
Bertone is a natural choice for helming this difficult production of one of the best musicals of the twentieth century. For the past few years, Bertone has built herself a following of devoted and dedicated performers and audience members, admiring her persistence, her support, and her attention to detail, especially considering the effect of movement and space in telling stories. Carousel becomes one of her crowning achievements to date.
Carousel is the 1945 classic musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, following the tumultuous relationship between carousel barker Billy Bigelow (played with tenderness by Ciarán Sheehan) and millworker Julie Jordan (played by Jennifer Ellis at her most earnest), and the foil relationship of fellow millworker and friend Carrie Pipperidge (played by the bright Jessica Kundla) and ambitious fisherman Enoch Snow (played with foppish energy by Dan Prior). With popular songs, including the conditional and hesitant “If I Loved You,” the rousing “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” the steadfast “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and the tour-de-force “Soliloquy,” Carousel is easily a favorite among audiences (even Rodgers himself), but also serves as a telling cautionary tale about those afraid to embrace our inner need to connect with others and express ourselves in our hope of loving and being loved. Here is where Bertone and her cast excel and provide us with something that we desperately need.
Opening, we see a lonely Julie Jordan, going through the motions of pushing the woof and the weave in the millhouse. Ellis treats us to her resilient facial expressions, and we know that we are in for a treat with her Julie. Ellis is a genius at reacting with the subtlest of facial expressions and the angel is in her details. Wisely, Bertone chooses to open with Ellis’ Julie and her story and the musical becomes her journey, and we are happy to go along for the ride. It is not always a happy journey, but it’s a pleasure to spend the next two-and-a-half hours with just pleasant company.
And the journey is made that much more enjoyable with the arrival of Kundla’s Carrie. Kundla is one of our newest finds, and she surpasses expectations in this supporting role. Her Carrie is alive with life’s possibilities and pushes Ellis’ Julie towards a greater thrill and enjoyment of life’s possibilities. Kundla’s driving energy is infectious and her bright and clear soprano matches Ellis’ making their duets an immediate joy to hear; just when you thought that the musical theatre soprano was gone, we see two young ingénues hungry for the chance to share their talents with us. Boston, let’s embrace this technique and presence with a few more Golden Age classics, huh?
Bertone’s opening “Carousel Waltz” is a visual whirlwind of delight; with twirls and leaps, we see the magic of Bertone’s choreography come alive in this seaside Maine town with the talents of this forty-nine-person ensemble. Like a carousel, we see the revolve of individuals jumping in the air for joy, selling their wares, getting in line for another show or ride, and always the excitement of possibility. Our eyes are glued to Ellis’ Julie as she navigates the wonder of something new. We get Ciarán Sheehan’s Billy Bigelow.
Sheehan is the leading man for whom we desperately long; he is handsome, yes, but he is also endlessly charming, his eyes lock on Ellis’ Julie and we can’t help wishing that someone would look at us with that much fascination, tenderness, and earnest desire. That desire does not go away for the next two-and-a-half hours. Their first scene alone is one of the hallmarks in musical theatre scene-writing, complete with a cautious “If I Loved You,” each of them telling the other how they would act, if they loved the other. Sheehan and Ellis circle each other, performing an intimate mating dance, thanks to Bertone’s eye for movement, even in dialogue. We are captivated by their restraint; this is phenomenal acting because we care about them, despite us veterans knowing, inevitably, where this story will lead. With a passionate kiss, we see hope, passion, and fireworks in the couple’s future. We are ecstatic.
Sheehan delivers in tender love and eager discovery in his fresh interpretation of the iconic “Soliloquy,” when he explores the kind of boy he’ll raise and he realizes the kind of man he wants to be. His Billy is softer than usual; his temper is never overwhelming, but with a touch of frustration with his inability to communicate, as he lashes out at those he loves whenever he can’t find the words to express how he feels. We watch and learn from Sheehan’s Billy, aware of our own shortcomings and our need to be a better person while we still can. His soaring voice is unmatched, especially in his “The Highest Judge of All,” but, perhaps, we can match him in his willingness to be more empathetic, more compassionate, and more communicative of our love.
The ensemble fills the stage for “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” lead by the steadfast and versatile Leigh Barrett as Nellie Fowler. Who wouldn’t want to spend all of their time with Leigh Barrett? Her Nellie is tough as nails and compassionate, feeding us with food as much as wisdom. Her virtuoso voice, running from a soulful alto to a bright soprano, makes her musical numbers zing. She continues this boastful energy by opening Act II with “This Was a Real Nice Clambake,” supported by soloists and ensemble. However, it is her Act II show-stopper that warrants the most praise. Barrett is one of the best musical theatre actresses in Boston, partly from sheer talent but mostly from her consistent effortful choices. Here, she chooses to struggle to find the words to comfort Ellis in the wake of tragedy; Barrett is nonetheless resilient. Like so many of us right now, her Nellie yearns for the hope of shining when darkness surrounds her.
Dan Prior’s Enoch Snow and Todd Yard’s Jigger provide much-needed humor to this dark musical, competing for our attention and support, between the ambitious fuddy-duddy to the ne’er-do-well rogue. Both of them support excellent tenor voices, especially in Prior’s “When The Children Are Asleep” and Yard’s rousing “Blow High, Blow Low.” Karen Fanale’s Mrs. Mullins is a tough egg to crack, appearing in the opening scenes as an antagonist to Julie, but reappearing in a key scene in Act II, but never quite creating the memorable performance to make us care about her journey or presence. Newcomer Kyra Christopher’s Louise Bigelow, however, delivers a heart-in-your-throat kind of earnest performance in her Ballet, coached to outstanding effect by Bertone. From throwing herself on the ground with willful frustration to the leaping zeal of new-found love, Christopher is one of the most expressive dancers that I have seen in years; if only all of us could live our lives with such abandon and freedom.
Bertone’s choreography throughout is original and smart, relying on recurring motifs to reinforce character, draw our eyes and our minds to key moments, and play with our expectations. Her movement emphasizes her ensemble’s refined legs, often jumping across the large stage in a gorgeous array of excitable energy. Bertone returns to the Opening Waltz in the Ballet with fancy footwork among the supporting ensemble, but her most awe-inspiring moment is late in the Ballet when the male ensemble levitate the female dancers as rocking horses; we see a carousel of human bodies appear before our eyes. The magic of dance and storytelling is one of Bertone’s many shining achievements.
Dan Rodriguez continues to be a joy as Music Director, and he leads one of the best orchestras in recent memory with the help of Conductor Jeffrey Leonard, supporting his rich vocalists and training them in exceptional interpretations of these classic songs. I did not care for many of Richard Schreiber’s scenic designs, especially a disjointed wooded scene early in the show, but his magnificent Heaven is beautiful to behold. David Wilson’s lighting is especially soft and nuanced, though outside the home in Act II is a bit difficult to see, overemphasizing shadows, masking some key facial reactions. The costumes by Costume World Theatrical are especially flattering, especially for the women, complete with high-waisted dresses and warm colors, though perhaps a bit too fairy-tale for the working town. The performances and direction surpassed many of the technical elements, transporting this musical on the merits of their talents.
This review was hard to write; to balance the stunning performances with the moving testament of seeing this musical a mere two days before tragedy in my life left me shaken to the core. How do you communicate the power of live theatre to provide catharsis? How do you put into the right words how much you need to forget, to laugh, to cheer, and to heal while watching magic onstage? In the end, there are no right words, there are only feelings to convey, an important lesson from watching Ciarán’s Billy suffer, change, and heal.
I hope that we can all have the opportunity to grow and love one another more deeply and truly, but also to express that love in more unequivocal terms. Without conditions, I promise that you will love this production of Carousel. Moreover, I promise that you are not alone; join us in celebrating the power of live theatre to form and develop a community of more compassionate understanding and expression. Because, in darkness, we always have the light of Bertone’s inspired choreography and direction, Ellis and Kundla’s bright soprano voices, Sheehan’s soaring tenor, and Barrett’s soulful and warm interpretation of an iconic anthem of strength and perseverance.
Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston’s Carousel runs now until May 19, 2016, at the Robinson Theatre in Waltham, Massachusetts, with tickets available here: