By Hap Erstein
Of the many shows by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II that pushed the boundaries of the musical theater in the mid-20th century, they often remarked that Carousel was their favorite.
You will get no argument from me about the score, which is so rich in character-laden melodies and topped by their single best musical number, the booming and delicate “Soliloquy,” sung by soon-to-be-father Billy Bigelow. It is, among many things, a textbook example of Hammerstein’s tenet that a song must move a character from one emotional state to another.
But it took me years to warm up to the show itself, this tale of a swaggering carnival barker who finds himself in love with a New England millworker, but cannot restrain himself from physically abusing her. It was not the domestic violence that got in the way of my enjoyment of the material, but the compensating sugar that was applied to so many stock and dinner theater productions. It was not until the Royal National Theatre’s Nicholas Hytner stripped away the saccharine coating in the 1990s that I understood the theatrical power of what Rodgers and Hammerstein infused in the tale based on a dramatic work by Ferenc Molnar.
So the bar was set unfairly high for me as I approached the production at Actors Playhouse, a solid, skilled company helmed by David Arisco, but not one known for plumbing the darker side of musical theater mainstays.
What is playing in Coral Gables through Feb. 26 is an extremely well-sung production of the show, though one that clings staunchly to the stage conventions of 1945, when Carousel was first performed. Much of the time the narrative takes a back seat to the music, as such songs as “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “Blow High, Blow Low” and “A Real Nice Clambake” are stretched with redundant choruses for the ensemble, the style of the time.
Similarly, much of the dance – choreographed by Ron Hutchins in homage to Agnes de Mille – is empty steps for their own sake (though the 11 o’clock ballet for Alexandra van Hasselt is lovely and integral to the story). Perhaps it is just audience attention spans that have shrunk since the advent of television, but as nice as the show at Actors’ Playhouse is, it cries out for editing as it approaches a three-hour running time.
Yearnings for a more imaginative staging aside, credit Arisco with getting sublime principal performances by South Florida-raised Broadway ringer Michael Hunsaker as Billy and by area favorite Julie Kleiner as his battered, but inexplicably loving wife, Julie Jordan. From their first song together, “If I Loved You,” a soaring number of conditional romance, we sense that the show is in good hands or, at least, good vocal cords.
If you are a frequent reader of the ArtsPaper, you probably already know that Billy – goaded by his no-goodnik buddy, Jigger Craigin (Nick Duckart) – tries to rob a local banker at knifepoint, an ill-planned scheme that does not go well. With few good deeds to his name, Billy is refused admission to heaven until he returns to earth and redeems himself with the wife and daughter he left behind. It is a heart-on-sleeve fable of the sort in which Hammerstein often trafficked, but that does not prevent it from being affecting to a contemporary audience.
Hunsaker and Kleiner carry most of the show, but in a signature Rodgers and Hammerstein touch, there is a parallel secondary love match – between spunky Lauren Lukacek as Julie’s sidekick, Carrie Pipperidge, and Mark Sanders as Carrie’s straitlaced, methodical beau, Enoch Snow.
Lourelene Snedeker’s soprano was made for clambake organizer Nettie Fowler, belting out the authors’ message number, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” just as she stood out several seasons back at the Wick as The Sound of Music’s Mother Superior with the musical directive to “Climb Every Mountain.” Peter Haig enters late in the evening, but makes a wily impression as the Starkeeper and the town’s folksy Doc Seldon. The rest of the cast, including an ensemble of two dozen — another vestige of the 1940s — fill out the coastal community capably.
More than 70 years since it first charmed audiences — yes, domestic violence and all — Carousel still works. It is both showing its age and proving itself to be timeless.
CAROUSEL, Actors’ Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. Through Sunday, Feb. 26. $57-$64. Call: 305-444-9293.