A review of director Bill Berry’s staging of “Carousel,” starring Laura Griffith and Brandon O’Neill at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
From the first rumbling chords of the luscious score, to the poignant finale, the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II masterwork “Carousel” is all of a piece.
The uncanny synthesis of compelling story, great music and dramatizing dance was a revelation on Broadway, when this bittersweet fable of life, love, death and redemption in coastal 19th-century New England debuted.
Any revival of substance must fire on all jets. And director Bill Berry’s beautifully sung and thought-through embrace of “Carousel” at the 5th Avenue Theatre, often achieves that.
By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Through March 1, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; tickets start at $29 (206-625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).
Berry and scenic designer Martin Christoffel locate the star-crossed romance between naive young millworker, Julie (Laura Griffith) and cocky carnival barker, Billy (Brandon O’Neill) in a setting of quasi-Brechtian spareness.
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The theater’s back brick wall is exposed throughout. And scenic elements trucked on by the performers cunningly suggest, rather than detail, such backdrops as a carnival with carousel, a wharf with bobbing sailboats, a heavenward “star factory.”
The sets are sufficient and sometimes more, and Sarah Nash Gates’ costumes cover tawdry carny and proper Victorian-era garb. But the main event is Richard Rodgers’ sumptuous melodies and Oscar Hammerstein II’s agile lyrics, sung by an adept local cast. They’re charged with conveying the ripples of tragedy, irony and joy in Hammerstein’s adaptation of Ferenc Molnar ‘s play, “Liliom.”
Eric Ankrim’s scuzzy wharf rat Jigger, among others, hits the right comic notes, you betcha. But along with the evocative Maine accents there’s a lot of Yankee spine in this interpretation.
Frequent 5th Avenue leading lady and seasoned soprano Griffith lacks dewy naiveté in the part, but gives an interestingly understated performance as a stoic, almost steely Julie. The character’s vulnerability starts surfacing in the extended “If I Loved You” duet where she and O’Neill’s ne’er do well Billy foresee the pain their union would bring. After they fall madly for each other anyway, Griffith taps into Julie’s tenderness, but draws on her strength to endure terrible sorrow.
Broadway alum O’Neill has the rugged masculine charisma and robust baritone of a bragging ladies’ man.
And he captures Billy’s restlessness and volatility, when life goes sour for him. Belting out R & H’s brilliant “Soliloquy,” O’Neill believably shifts from happy fantasies of having a playmate son, to soberly anticipating a baby daughter who’ll need a responsible father — a role he tries desperately, but fatally, to fill.
A radiant Billie Wildrick nearly swipes the show as Julie’s vivacious pal Carrie, with crack comic timing and creamy soprano versions of “Mr. Snow,” and “When the Children Are Asleep,” a duet with moralistic suitor Enoch (Joshua Downs). Carrie and Julie marry differently, but both sacrifice much to their men — sometimes masochistically, by current standards.
As older, wiser town matriarch Nettie, Anne Allgood is also in splendid voice leading the folksy ensemble number “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” and that evergreen hymn to perseverance, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
This “Carousel” has more dancing than usual, with Donald Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theater doing the honors. Byrd got blowback for his edgily erotic moves in 5th Ave’s recent “Oklahoma!,” but his choreography here is often playfully gymnastic, and when needed in the story-ballet for Billy’s misfit daughter Louise (Madelyn Koch), quite lyrical.
The pit orchestra led by Ian Eisendrath. and the singing chorus, perform laudably.
Add it all up, and there’s much expertise to admire in this “Carousel,” and enough soulfulness to sometimes move you to tears.