Monday, April 13, 2015

With Bright Stars and Dark Themes, Lyric's 'Carousel' is a Largely Delightful Ride -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater / Opera Review

by Rodgers & Hammerstein
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru May 3

Although the tradition dates back only two years, the Lyric Opera's annual staging of a classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical has become one of my favorite staples of Spring in Chicago.

Presented outside the auspices of the Lyric's subscription series, Oklahoma (in 2013), The Sound of Music and now Carousel have been newly produced by the prestigious opera company, but done--predominantly meaning sung--as musical theater works, not operas.

While there's probably some overlap in the definition and delineation of "opera" and "musical," given that examples of the latter are more typically sung in English--at least in America and Britain--without the overtly sonorous intonations that characterize the "operatic form" (as best I can describe), I have far more voluminously, emphatically and emotionally embraced musicals than operas.

But I have eminent respect for the operatic form and the greatness of the Lyric--and try to get to at least one traditional opera each year. (I loved The Passenger there just last month.)

And I heartily applaud--conceptually and meritoriously--whenever the Lyric Opera has seen fit to bring Broadway to the glorious Civic Opera House. (Before the Rogers & Hammerstein series, with The King and I coming in 2016, I loved Sweeney Todd and Show Boat at the Lyric.)

Oklahoma and The Sound of Music have been absolutely phenomenal, and similarly supported by the wondrous Lyric orchestra, Carousel boasts a top tier Broadway director in Rob Ashford and a cast full of musical theater luminaries, including Steven Pasquale, Laura Osnes, Jenn Gambatese, Matthew Hydzik, Jarrod Emick and Charlotte d'Amboise.

Denyce Graves, who I saw in the title role of Carmen at the Lyric, brings genuine opera chops to the proceedings, and it was fun to see Tony Roberts--who I know from the movie Annie Hall, but also with numerous Broadway credits--in a non-singing role.

Photo credit on all: Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune
According to this article by Chicago Tribune Theater critic Chris Jones--who subsequently awarded Carousel 4 stars (out of 4)--it is certainly within the realm of possibility that this production will eventually transfer to Broadway.

So to score a good balcony seat discounted to just $22 through Goldstar was an absolute steal, and there continue to be great bargains through HotTix and the Lyric box office as well.

At such agreeable prices, this is a Carousel for which any serious musical theater fan, widely-receptive opera aficionado and/or devoted Rodgers & Hammerstein admirer should get themselves a ticket.

There are a number of great R&H classics--the luscious overture, "If I Loved You," "June is Bustin' Out All Over," "A Real Nice Clambake," "You'll Never Walk Alone"--and the singing is routinely superb. (Although in the role of Aunt Nettie, Graves' great mezzo-soprano suits the last song cited far more than her part on "June is Bustin' Out...")

Beautiful vocally and otherwise, Osnes is perfectly cast as Julie Jordan, a tender-hearted small town New Englander who falls for the roguish carousel barker, played by Pasquale.

The actor has been a regular on CBS' The Good Wife this season, and as a fan of the show, it was fun to see him on a Chicago stage, especially just two weeks after seeing his Good Wife colleague Alan Cumming starring in Cabaret on Broadway. (On my recent visit to NYC, I also happened to see The Good Wife's Mary Beth Peil in The Visit musical.)

Pasquale has a particularly strong, resonant voice--it reached the opera house balcony quite richly--and handled the largely-unlikable role of Billy Bigelow very well. His rendition of the "Soliloquy" (a.k.a. "My Boy Bill") is certainly a highlight among many.

After her starring role as Maria in The Sound of Music on the same stage last year, Broadway vet Jenn Gambatese was again a delight as Carrie, Julie's best friend, while Hydzik (as Enoch Snow), Emick (a Tony-winner playing the rather small role of Jigger Cragin) and D'Amboise (a fine singer who I've seen in Chicago, but who doesn't get any lead vocals as Mrs. Mullin here) are all excellent.

Albeit with rather limited stage time, Roberts was a pleasure as the Starkeeper--a small part of Carousel takes place in heaven--and Abigail Simon danced beautifully in Louise's ballet.

Yet while there is far more good than not about Carousel at the Lyric, and I heartily recommend it, my @@@@1/2 rating represents a bit of a disappointment after giving both Oklahoma and The Sound of Music perfect scores.

Primarily because those shows--as well as Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I and South Pacific--have more songs that I instantly recognize and forthrightly enjoy than does Carousel, I didn't sit through nearly 3 hours on Sunday with the same sense of ebullience.

Or tapping feet.

Certainly, Carousel is a darker show, and I respect that it was thematically pretty groundbreaking when it first appeared on Broadway in 1945. When I first saw it onstage in 2010 at Light Opera Works, even before I had watched the 1956 movie, I gave @@@@@ to a sensational production. (I honestly can't remember enough specifics to directly compare that rendition to this one.)

So I have no qualms with Carousel being considered a first-rate musical, even if I don't agree with TIME magazine's, "The best musical of the 20th century" plaudit.

But there aren't that many songs in it I truly love, I'm troubled by how it grapples with the issue of domestic violence but never really condemns it, the Billy Bigelow character is largely just a turd and the whole looking/coming down from heaven part seems rather obtuse.

Also, while it isn't a significant cause for detraction, I wasn't as dazzled by the set design--by Paolo Ventura, a first-time scenic designer hand-picked by director Ashford based on the quality of his artwork in a New York gallery--as I have been by other Lyric productions, both operas and musicals.

So while I got far more than my fair share of quality entertainment for $22--and respect that Chris Jones found this production of Carousel "by far the best" of the Lyric's Rodgers & Hammerstein's forays, and even that it may well be their most operatic work--I simply prefer Oklahoma and The Sound of Music.

I also found Carousel a notch less blissful than the astonishing, now-ended Broadway re-revival of Cabaret mentioned above, as well as a glorious local production of Les Misérables, now playing at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

So while Carousel may well deserve a full @@@@@ for how well it is performed at the Civic Opera House, it seems a bit askew to bestow Seth Saith's high-water mark while naming several shows I simply enjoyed more.

But even without quite being my favorite ride at the fair, Carousel has plenty of horsepower and I would be delighted to see this production make it to Broadway.

Thus, if you can catch it for under $25 (+ fees) and a fairly short commute, you'd be amiss not to get aboard this rather starry--and extremely good--merry-go-round.

No comments: