By Manning Harris
Serenbe Playhouse is doing something very special near Chattahoochee Hills just south of Atlanta in the community of Serenbe: an outdoor, site specific, environmentally unique production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical play “Carousel,” running through April 10.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the play; it’s the second collaboration by the legendary composer and lyricist after “Oklahoma,” which opened in 1943 during World War II and changed the face of musical theatre forever with its bold fusion of music, dance, and drama, all of which were integral to the story and characters.
Two years later they presented “Carousel,” based on a work by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar called “Liliom,” a carnival barker whose name is Billy Bigelow in “Carousel.” More about him later.
The first thing I must tell you about Serenbe’s production is that its quite audacious director Brian Clowdus has created a total carnival environment to surround the playing area, complete with a working Ferris wheel, booths, a bearded lady, Siamese twins, a strongman with a mallet, and of course, a carousel. So we have audience participatory theatre before the show even begins, and also during intermission. You won’t believe it.
But the play’s the thing, as Shakespeare said, and here we are not shortchanged. In recent years the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein has been reexamined and re-imagined in such works as the glorious 2007 revival of “South Pacific” on Broadway at Lincoln Center, “Oklahoma” on both the London stage and Broadway; and yes, Serenbe’s already legendary 2014 production in front of a barn. Many of the leading players in that show are appearing in “Carousel,” a very nice touch.
All of these productions were rife with paradox, irony, and a sometimes dark awareness of life’s disappointments and ambiguities. Some people had begun to think of Rodgers and Hammerstein as simply purveyors of “Sound of Music” sunshine. Big mistake; and I like “Music,” by the way.
There’s one more revival that I was fortunate enough to see: the 1994 Lincoln Center production of “Carousel,” which started in London, directed by Nicholas Hytner (“Miss Saigon”). I had a front row seat; the evening was pure magic. All I can say is that I share one thing with the late, great Richard Rogers: Of “Carousel” he said, “It affects me deeply every time I see it performed.”
Happily, you may have a similar experience with the Serenbe production. Around 1900 on the Maine coastline a carnival is visiting; as mentioned, the barker is Billy (Edward McCreary). He and local mill worker Julie Jordan (Kelly Chapin Martin) are instantly attracted to each other, and this does not please carousel owner Mrs. Mullin (Lala Cochran) one bit. When she sees Billy put his arm around Julie, she orders her off the premises and threatens to fire Billy (and soon does). It’s pretty obvious she wants the hunky Billy for herself.
Meanwhile, Julie and Billy, both of whom are feisty and mistrustful of love, continue to spar and flirt at the same time, and proceed to the famous bench scene where each tells the other how they’d behave “If I Loved You.”
Performed well, as it is here by Ms. Martin and Mr. McCreary, this song and scene is as sublime as anything in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. What I love about both of them is that they are actors who sing; this is crucial here. Ms. Martin may be the more assured vocalist with her lovely soprano, but Mr. McCreary sings beautifully himself. When these two are onstage together, you believe.
Julie’s best pal is Carrie, superbly played by Jessica Miesel; Carrie is in love with “Mister Snow,” Daniel Burns, and she shows Julie that love can happen without either partner being perfect. Since one of the main themes of the show is that behavior often contradicts intention (particularly in Billy’s case), this news is quite reassuring.
Julie and Billy have both lost their jobs, and Billy becomes desperate for funds, especially when he finds that Julie is pregnant. This news leads to another high point, Billy’s Act I closing “Soliloquy”; and here Mr. McCreary truly shines. Alone onstage, his poise, intensity, concentration, and fine voice are all very moving.
Come to think of it, Director Clowdus has cast the show extremely well. Ally Duncan (Nettie), who sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” is fine. So is Austin Tijerina, who can sing, dance, and act with equal aplomb; his wily Jigger is all too believable. Brittany Ellis (Louise) and Nathan Lubeck dance the Act II pas de deux between Billy’s daughter (that’s right; I can’t tell you the whole plot) and the Fairground Boy beautifully.
Other cast members are Shelby Folks, Jaclyn Helms, Brian Jordan, AJ Klopach, Matt Lewis, Shannon McCarren, Hayley Platt, Lilliangina Quinones, and Terrence Smith. The ensemble sound and dancing are both fine. I wish I had space to mention everyone in this large cast.
The choreography is by Bubba Carr; the music director is Chris Brent Davis; the scene design is by Adam Koch; costumes by Abby Parker; sound design by Adam Howarth.
The orchestra sounds lovely and is conducted by Mr. Davis. The staging is crisp and sharp. More numbers: “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” What’s the Use of Wond’rin,” “When the Children Are Asleep.” And there’s more.
“Carousel” begins to deal with cosmic issues; it’s well known that Billy returns from the dead in Act II with a mission; again, I can’t reveal all. I can say that it would save you a lot of trouble if you could please tell the people you love in this life that you love them.
A word of caution—the nights can be cool; bring a wrap.
I love “Carousel,” and I loved this production. Richard Rodgers said this was his favorite of his shows; let it work its magic for you.
For tickets and information, visit serenbeplayhouse.com.