Theater review: A 'Carousel' you'll want to keep riding
With their production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel," the Turtle Lane Playhouse has found the key to a very satisfying evening in the theater.
Make your big decisions well, and they'll carry the show for you, covering up for any smaller decisions that may not work out quite as well.
The biggest decision any theater has to make is the choice of show. And the classic musical "Carousel," based on Ferenc Molnar's play "Liliom," is a terrific choice. It's a deeply moving story, so much so that you'd have to have a heart of steel not to respond to it. From the very beginning it engages us, and we find ourselves very much caring about its two main characters, Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, even though he's obviously flawed and she's naive. Neither is really ready for the marriage they start with each other.
The show is also a good choice because the music is lush and beautiful. And being set in coastal Maine in the 1870s, the show has a natural appeal for New Englanders.
The second biggest decision any theater has to make is casting the leads, and they couldn't have done better than selecting Nicholas Howe as Billy Bigelow. He gives a superb performance.
From the start, he captures the cocky swagger of the carnival barker who has a reputation for flirting with young women riding the carousel. That's how he meets Julie. And before they know it, both ignore the demands of their respective bosses and choose the tantalizing but uncertain possibilities of love over their jobs.
What makes Howe's performance so compelling is that it's emotionally honest through-and-through. He completely understands and embodies the moment, whether he's playing with Julie when they first meet, treating her with considerable toughness later on, or suddenly being tender with her. He makes an instant switch between being tough and tender when Julie insists on telling him something important and he hardly has time for her until she announces that she's pregnant. Suddenly he wraps his arms around her, buries his face into her chest, and carries her on one arm into their digs with Julie's Aunt Nettie. There's not a false note to his performance.
Julianne Richards as Julie Jordan is appealing and does a good job of being fearless of Billy and trying to prevent him from going off with his shady friend Jigger Craign. Julie is extremely sympathetic when Billy makes his fatal mistake, but Richards - and Russell Greene as director - wisely allow this musical to be primarily about Billy and his being torn between his better and worse selves.
Some of the acting leans toward the obvious. Carrie Pipperidge, Julie's friend, is supposed to represent the conventional choices as she marries the fisherman Enoch Snow. But Heather R. Karwowski as Carrie tends to overplay the conventionality and would do better to approach the role more naturally, showing us some of her doubts about the route she takes.
We'd like to see a little more of her humanity as we would of Mrs. Mullin (played by Kara Dunn), the owner of the carnival who has unrealistic yearnings for Billy. Margaret McCarty as Nettie Fowler, Julie's aunt, conveys a nice sense of maturity and responsibility, an even keel to the many young people around her.
The story turns on Jigger's persuading Billy to help him hold up and possibly murder the owner of the local mill as he carries $3,000 to a docked whaling ship. Billy sees it as his only chance to make the money he needs to care for his family. Unfortunately, Ryan Garvin is miscast as Jigger. He doesn't develop a mesmerizing hold on Billy nor does he explore the depths of the evil streak that makes him want to spoil every good thing he encounters.
The scene in which Billy find himself outside heaven's pearly gates being given a chance to return to Earth for a day captures the imagination. And his day back on Earth is deeply moving, especially his awkward efforts to redeem himself with his 15-year-old daughter Louise, who's played with wonderful feeling by Gillian Gordon. She and Derek Raposo as a young carnival barker perform a lovely ballet.
The cast and ensemble have good singing voices and give rousing performances of "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and "This Was a Real Nice Clambake" as well as a poignant reprise of "You'll Never Walk Alone."
Michele Boll's beautifully painted scrims of the ocean and island with a cottage and another with lighthouse have an Edward Hopper touch as they capture the feeling of costal Maine.
You don't have to be a Billy Bigelow to feel the tragedy of his ways or to be caught up in this production and what it has to say to us all.
WHEN: Through Dec. 6
WHERE:Turtle Lane Playhouse, 283 Melrose St., Newton
INFO: 617-244-0169; www.turtlelane.org