When I sent my Ohio Light Opera CAROUSEL review late (very late!) last night, I did so (stupidly) without checking the review more thoroughly. To my horror, I discovered that not only had I left out a chunk of the review (hence the abrupt finish) by forgetting to paste a paragraph I meant to move to another location, but I found significant redundancies and careless mistakes. This is what late-night writing does to me..gotta stop that. So much for the old adage "Haste makes waste."
So for anyone who is interested, here is the completed review as I meant to present it, plus a couple of sneaked-in corrections...I only reprint this review to give several other major contributors to the performance their deserved due notices. For those who would not care to plow through the whole review again, the previously missing sections are at the end of the review.
This evening I returned - exhilarated I must say - from a day-long excursion to Wooster, Ohio, where I attended a matinee performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein's CAROUSEL.
Ohio Light Opera is one of the mainstays of summertime theater-going in Ohio. It is a true repertory company, where several shows are presented repeatedly, interchangeably from the middle of June, onto the middle of August. Everything from Gilbert and Sullivan, to operetta, and Broadway is presented. It bills itself as the "Resident Professional Company of The College of Wooster." And this being my first time in the partaking of this company, I can attest to the fact that there is nothing "Light" about the level of professionalism and talent that I witnessed here.
The performance I saw today was undoubtedly one of the finest musical theater performances in recent memory.
Quite simply, not only did everything "work", but all the components came together in a most cohesive manner, and it emerged as a superior theatrical experience. So often, musical theater of this nature fails to come together, sadly because most of the artists are usually not up to the task, and the direction fails dismally to bring a given piece to life. It is such a fallacy to think that Rodgers and Hammerstein and their kind can be performed by just any amateur group, enthusiastically hoping for optimal results, but the truth is, the casting considerations must be at least on the same level - yes - of any serious opera. For Musical Theater is no less serious in its intentions than any Verdi or Mozart piece. I'm sure there are those who will (excuse me, with a degree of snobbery) disagree, but I happen to respect the musical theater epoch with, admittedly, the utmost reverence: I love the genre.
The performance I saw today was actually more enjoyable, more competent - truth to tell - than some of the godawful Met broadcasts I heard this past season. Tucked away in this Midwest town were blessedly enthusiastic, energetic, talented artists desiring to be honest, sincere performers wishing to hone their craft - and they succeeded, in the proverbial spades, I must say. I'm increasingly enjoying companies such as these, and those like the Met less every year. What I saw today restored my faith, that I can still enjoy, with a kind of contented satisfaction, a good honest piece of entertainment.
Amazingly enough, the score was presented entirely uncut, perhaps my only cavil. "Geraniums in the Winder" is, along with THE SOUND OF MUSIC's "An Ordinary Couple" the most banal and trite of songs. Not all of the music in CAROUSEL is of the highest quality, and it is to the credit of all those concerned that the proceedings did not lag or became tiresome.
Credit must be first given due to the direction of Sarah McGraw, which was innovative, fluidly balletic, theatrical yet somehow very believably natural, and which abetted the action beautifully.
McGraw knew when to keep the chorus still, when to have them "react", and when to have them add some liveliness to the crowd scenes. The blocking was tight, tableaus set in a picturesque and imaginative fashion, and there was a sense of how to show the artists to their best advantage. Most of all, McGraw achieved a feeling of real intimacy in how the characters interacted with one another; the actors were made to LOOK at each other, made to REACT to - and this is important - the other characters rather than to the audience. In short, McGraw created the most incredible ensemble spirit I've seen in a long time. As well, the work of the chorus, and the solo dancers were all outstanding. There was nary a truly weak link anywhere.
Another felicitious touch was the spare, simple but remarkably creative sets of Richard Traubner. These sets relied on the telling use of props, painted backdrops, as well as some startling special effects in the heaven and dream sequences - these were aided by the lighting designer, Jen Groseth. No expense was spared for Jeffrey Meek's costumes: they were quality tailored designs and fabrics, and it showed. Such an expense cannot be underestimated, because it gave the actors the right "moves" and attitudes for their characterizations.
The two leads were outstanding - incomparable really. Julie Wright is about as near perfect a Julie Jordan as one could wish for. Although operatically trained, Wright displayed an absolute affinity for the stylistic peculiarities of Rodgers' music, her clear, steady soprano confidently handling the songs. She was the very essence of lyrical wonderment in "If I Loved You," and sang a poignant, haunting rendition of "What's The Use of Wondrin' " Blessed with true stage presence (her huge, expressive eyes are a considerable asset), Wright achieved a superb balance of touching girlish sincerity, unusual depth, independence of spirit, courageous dignity, along with that of troubled anguish, as her character realizes the disturbing realization of her husband's instability. Most of all, Wright suggested an inner fortitude that is all too rare in characters of this type. Julie Jordan is an extremely difficult role to cast, because most ingenue-type actresses/singers do not have the depth to portray such a multi-faceted character. Wright was, plainly, luxury casting indeed - a born singing-actress.
Just as believable was Ted Christopher's Billy Bigelow. Christopher, an energetic, physically charged actor, created a vivid portrait of the troubled young man, presenting Billy as, by turns, high strung, self-doubting, angry, stubborn, disturbingly unpredictable, and yet somehow all too human. The actor did not try to make his character overly sympathetic, thereby making Billy all the more real - an unstintingly honest portrayal. In Billy's demanding songs, Christopher phrased with true distinction and feeling, and like Wright, put over splendidly the great arching crest of melody in "If I Loved You," really luxuriating in the drawing out of the aria-like line. He had the appropriate swagger, insouciance and giddy high spirits for the "Soliloquy" number; as well, Christopher really conveyed the angry frustration of the climactic closing phrases. Though his voice carried well in the theater, Christopher's voice production is just a mite too far back in the throat; the highest notes lacked some focus and ping, but that did not at all detract from his instinctive, sensitive musicianship.
Where Wright and Christopher really outdid themselves as a team, however, was in Billy's death scene.
These two brought an unspeakable, unbearable poignancy to the proceedings as Julie holds Billy's hand and comforts him in the last few moments of his life. The tension they created absolutely gripped the audience: rarely have I ever felt such a mass response such as this. Wright and Christopher accomplished something that happens all too uncommonly in the musical theater realm: they touched depths of true tragedy - it hit home and stung, painful and deep. I've been to performances of the most despairingly tragic operas, but left afterward without even a flicker of emotion registering in me, and the performers leaving no mark whatsoever. Today I saw two consummate artists achieve the exceptional and the sublime - they rattled an audience to the foundations. Equally fine was the overwhelmingly moving closing scene, in which Billy, satisfied that he has done something meaningful at last, ascends to heaven via a brightly lit staircase, surrounded by seraphic figures. Described as such, it sounds laughably mawkish, but actually, it had a strangely mystical power, enhanced by the soaring refrain of "You'll Never Walk Alone." I confess to having a shameless slop-sensibility for this kind of stuff...
Megan Loomis's Carrie Pipperidge was just right - not too goofy and ditzy, but actually quite lovable in her clumsy daffiness. Most comic leads can come across as terribly annoying and cutesy till you want to slap them, but Loomis displayed a keen sense of understatement while still providing some laughs - such a balance is again out of the ordinary, and I was thankful for the opportunity to see an ideal example carried (no pun intended I swear) out. Anthony Maida, though he sang well as Enoch Snow, could have shown a little more backbone in the characterization; the role is not an easy one, though.
Ann Marie Wilcox seemed to me awfully young for Nettie Fowler, and was slightly unconvincing as the jokey-sexy Marina Matriarch. However, Wilcox made up for any drawbacks by her superb singing of "You'll Never Walk Alone," as she takes over the melody from the grief-stricken Julie. Not only was this potentially hokey number phrased with exquisite sensitivity, but I was completely taken aback by the power of Wilcox's voice at this point, which just poured out in reams of sound and projected out into the theater effortlessly. It set just the right seal on the whole scene, which by combined efforts reached heights of tragic sublimity.
Youth was also a credibility problem for Arlene Simmons' otherwise enticingly tarty portrayal of cradlesnatcher Mrs. Mullin. I see Mrs. Mullin as a rather overripe, perhaps blowsy woman, a bit pathetic in her fixation on the much younger Billy. I would also have liked a more mature Doctor Seldon, who at the end delivers sage words of advice for Louise and her graduating class.
David Wannen portrayed Jigger Craigin, and I had a difficult time believing him as a scummy no-account. Tall, elegant and appropriately attired in a P coat, he nonethless looked unmistakeably dapper, like a Milan runway model. As it turned out, Wannen was much more believable - at home really - as the romantic figure in the dream sequence dance of Louise Bigelow.
Louise herself was played by startling vigor and the right rebellious edginess by Lauren Beatty, whose talents are multiple: her dancing in the "dream" sequence was lively, supple and graceful to the eye, thanks too to the lively choreography of Carol Hageman. These dances, surprisingly, did not distract from the main theme of the show, but were natural extensions of the musical drama.
Crowning this seamless enterprise was conductor Steven Byess and his orchestra. Byess did more than just sensitively accompany his singers (plenty of room given for individuality of phrasing); he and his players aptly provided a live soundtrack to the action, as it were. Many crucial scenes in Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are underscored in an uniquely expressive way to enhance the emotional pull of a scene, and Byess's handling of such moments was masterful, even brilliantly judged. Dynamic levels were always handled with alert preciseness, as they rose and ebbed according to the like dynamic of the scene in question. Textures were always kept transparent, so that even the softest dialogue could be heard. No matter what I may feel about the quality of one or two of the songs, the score somehow coalesced in such a way that really made me aware of Rodgers' painstaking work in presenting a totality of atmosphere. Thanks to Byess and his astute, intuitive feel for these delicate balances, I was made aware for the first time of the overall impact of this score's apparently organic wholeness. I feel as if I have heard and seen the real CAROUSEL for the first time.
The overall high level of this whole performance was a rather delightful surprise, and in the end I was pleased that it garnered a standing ovation, which was one of the rare times it was really deserved.