Sunday, August 22, 2010

Light Opera Works' Exquisite 'Carousel' Makes Initial Excusion A Very Merry Go-'Round

Theater Review

a musical by Rogers and Hammerstein
Light Opera Works
Cahn Auditorium, Evanston
Thru August 29

Rogers and Hammerstein's Carousel is probably the most famous and acclaimed musical--Time magazine named it the best of the 20th century--that I've never seen on stage at any level nor in its film version.

I've never purposely avoided it; I just don't remember ever being presented with an opportunity to see it in the last 10 years when I've avidly been going to musicals. But I guess my lack of familiarity is why I didn't really take notice of Light Opera Works' current production of it--despite loving almost everything I've seen there--and even after the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones give it a four-star (out of 4) review, I still didn't instantly put it down on my calendar.

But the combination of seeing full-page ads citing additional rave reviews, a lack of other plans for Saturday night and half-price tickets available through Hot Tix (and Goldstar) made me get wise and decide to see the show.

I'm really glad I did. Despite only playing a total of 8 performances--a pittance next to other area musical theater companies of comparable quality, Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire and Drury Lane Oakbrook--the production was truly outstanding, with performances no worse than what I would expect to see in a touring Broadway production, or for that matter on Broadway or in London's West End. Sure, the carousel itself was a one-horse ride, but the scenery was more than sufficient, LOW's trademark full orchestra (with 30 musicians) sounded fantastic and the singing sounded note-perfect.

Photo from
The Tribune's Jones said he's only seen one better rendition of the 1945 musical and in an article separate from his review, he raves about the tonality that directly Stacey Flaster brings to a somewhat dark and tricky storyline--especially for a Rogers and Hammerstein musical.

I don't have anything to compare it to, but I doubt that any other incarnation could give me a better introductory appreciation of Carousel. This is really a sublime production and although the musical itself had only 1-2 numbers I knew well going in--"June is Bustin' Out All Over" and the graduation staple "You'll Never Walk Alone"--even by intermission, I clearly understood why the show is held in such esteem.

Unlike several pre-1950s musicals that seem to have book & continuity flaws that can make them feel particularly dated--as I mentioned about Annie Get Your Gun upon seeing it last weekend at Ravinia--not only is Carousel wonderfully tuneful throughout, but perhaps due to Flaster's take on it, the narrative holds up well in every sense, even when it gets a bit otherworldly. (I'll have to watch the movie soon for comparison's sake.)

Light Opera Works mainstay Natalie Ford was typically terrific as Julie Jordan and Cooper David Gordon, making his first Chicago area appearance, was outstanding as her flawed and ill-fated husband, Billy Bigelow. Particularly on "Soliloquy," a long and lyrically-intricate song that per its title is delivered unaccompanied, Bigelow showed that he really has a big-time voice. (Though a bit young, he should be great as Javert in Les Miz, which his credits indicate he'll soon be tackling as part of a national company.) And everyone in the major side roles--Elizabeth Lanza as Carrie, Winifred Faix Brown as Nettie, George Keating as Enoch Snow and Jeremy Trager as Jigger--gave sterling performances well-deserving of mention.
With a dark storyline, including domestic violence, nefarious scheming, death and adolescent angst, Carousel can't really be described as a merry musical. But with the 30-piece orchestra--including a harp!--punctuating a glorious Rogers & Hammerstein score, vibrant costuming (by Nikki Delhomme) and wonderful performances from a young, attractive cast, Flaster and crew deliver an exceptionally ebullient ride.

This is one go-'round you really shouldn't miss, but you only have two more chances, next Saturday & Sunday. But I'm already looking forward to LOW's Christmas production of another of the few musical classics I've yet to see on-stage, Hello Dolly. It'll be nice to back, because on the short list of the very best musical theater companies in Chicagoland, or anywhere for that matter, Light Opera Works--celebrating its 30th season--has once again shown that it clearly belongs.

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