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Monday, 15 June 2015

Review: Carousel turns but does not move

Centre: Jonathan Winsby as Billy Bigelow, with 
members of the company in Carousel. Photo by David Hou.
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on Ferenc Molnar’s Play “Liliom”, as adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer
Original dances by Agnes De Mille; Choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld
Directed by Susan H. Schulman; musical direction by Franklin Brasz
Designed by Douglas Paraschuk (set), Dana Osborne (costumes), Kevin Fraser (lighting), BradPeterson (projection), Peter McBoyle (sound), John Stead (fights)

It is unfortunately the case that after several weeks of late nights, a reviewer whose full-time employment lies outside of reviewing might not have been in the most generous frame of mind when seeing Carousel a full two weeks after it officially opened (humblest apologies if this is the case). Eschewing other reviewers’ (and friends’) opinions until the chance to see it oneself is fraught, especially given the controversial nature of the musical’s story (synopsis here).

In staging Carousel in the same season as Taming of the Shrew the Stratford Festival was taking both a risk and an opportunity – the risk in being criticized for giving audiences two plays with misogynistic reputations, but also the opportunity to address the issues of sexual politics and domestic abuse.

However, audiences intending to see both should probably see Carousel before Taming of the Shrew; it might not pale as much in comparison. In other words, this year's Petruchio and Kate could teach this year's Billy and Julie a thing or two.

By all accounts director Susan Schulman and her cast did their homework in regards to trying to gain insight into the difficult issue of spousal abuse that the play depicts.  This is laudable, but their insight is not translated in the least onto their stage.  The overall look and feel of the production is pretty but without depth, much like a musician that can play all the right notes but has no emotional connection to the music he plays. Technically everything is sound, but there is no fury that binds the production.

That is not to say that there is no emotion at all – Alexis Gordon is the epitome of quiet strength as Julie, never better than as she sings “What’s the Use of Wondrin’” in her soaring soprano, and Jonathan Winsby goes from macho to (nearly) endearing during “Soliloquy” as Billy realizes he might have fathered a daughter. Robin Evan Willis is effervescent as Carrie, Julie’s friend; Alanah Hibbert gives us a strong, sympathetic Nettie; Shaun Alexander Hauk is adorable as Mr. Snow, and Jaqueline Burtney brings out the best in both Louise’s parents – Julie’s inherent grace and Billy’s innate fierceness – in what is this Carousel’s most moving performance.

Jacqueline Burtney as Louise.
Photo by David Hou.
But… there is little chemistry between Ms. Gordon and Mr. Winsby; Ms. Gordon’s Julie is so guarded that even her recklessness seems calculated, while Mr. Winsby’s Billy is played much too broadly to leave any room for subtlety.  One wishes for Ms. Willis that her character’s naivety could have been pared down – the ‘dumb-blonde’ stereotype was tired in the 70’s, and does nothing to serve a modern audience. Although emotional, Ms. Burtney’s wild ballet comes too late in the play to anchor it, and other cast members seem ill-used – Marcus Nance and Evan Buliung to name two. Mr. Nance has vocals that could bring down any house, and Mr. Buliung can deliver a soliloquy that will raise a roof, but here in Carousel they appear as side supports to a main event that is not strong enough to sustain itself.

It is preferable to be moved to tears either in empathy or in joy or even in outrage when seeing such a complex, highly-regarded piece of theatre. Unfortunately it is unlikely audiences will be moved to any emotion other than a fleeting appreciation at the attempt – perhaps the reason for the awkwardly abbreviated applause this past Saturday evening.

Carousel continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 16th.  

Alexis Gordon as Julie and Jonathan Winsby as Billy Bigelow,
with members of the company in Carousel. Photo by David Hou.

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