‘Carousel’: Honest Pain and Hard-Won Joy

There are lots of ways to take in the rich, detailed and entirely moving production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “Carousel,” at Arena Stage through Dec. 24. With its inspirational tone and climax, you could use it as a balm to our over-excitable, chaotic and uncertain political times in America. You could, in the age of “Hamilton,” embrace it for its high status in the ranks of old-school R&H musicals. You could even see it as issues-oriented, what with its sometimes abusive antihero.

All of that is well and good, except for the fact that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s plot-driven musicals were revolutionary in their day, just as “Hamilton” appears to be today. And in the bracing production that Artistic Director Molly Smith offers up, “Carousel” seems somehow fresh and new, packing a punch while hitting all of the buttons familiar to audiences steeped in the form.

In short, you will embrace the memory of what is perhaps one of the greatest love songs ever written for the stage when Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan launch into “If I Loved You,” realizing with every line and note that they are falling deeply in love.

It’s perhaps best to look at this production as a high point in Smith’s exploration of the American musical theater, the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein in particular. This “Carousel” is directly connected to but different in tone from Arena’s robust and imaginative production of the grand R&H musical “Oklahoma,” which inaugurated the Mead Center for American Theater in 2010.

“Oklahoma,” especially in its Arena incarnation, was all about confidence. Right from the start, it had an exuberant, very American feel to it, set in land-rush turn-of-the-century Oklahoma, where anything might be possible and change was in the air. Curley, as a brash cowboy, opened the show singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.”

“Carousel” is set in a similar time but a different place, a small fishing town in New England, where life is a little harder, but nevertheless has its deep pleasures. This time, the hero is an itinerant, charismatic carny barker named Billy Bigelow, who falls for Julie, a smart, determined and pretty young woman who works in a local factory.

Like most of the R&H musicals, “Carousel” is firmly rooted in character and time and place. There’s a sometimes harsh, insistent honesty in the people who inhabit this show and this production, most notably Billy, played by Nicholas Rodriguez, who also played Curly in “Oklahoma.” Billy’s a man who’s less brash than Curly but more in the moment and place. You can’t ignore him, but he’s no All-American hero. He has a streak of frustration and a violent temper — as well as a penchant for self-destruction — to go with the allure that might attract an otherwise sensible woman like Julie.

Rodriguez is in full voice here, but it’s a voice tempered by nuance, that gets underneath the presence. It’s a rich voice, one that Rodriguez has always sported almost like an amulet, and it serves him well. He plays this not always appealing character as somewhat less than fully formed.

Character is on display everywhere in “Carousel,” and one of the characters is the community itself. It appears rustic, seemingly framed by wooden crates. There is part of a carousel and a gazebo where the orchestra plays. Smith has denuded the production of stuff. Tools, gifts, things, are mimed and suggested, while the town appears in its people: the factory women, the fishermen who provide the town its subsistence, the church people, the carny folk, the men and women who come together and form families or not. The life of the town seems openly hard, but also joyful, with pleasures that are ingrained with consistency — a clambake, lectures, music, the church — in a very American way.

The simplicity of the setting also lets you stray deeply into the plot, in which Billy marries Julie, loses his job, takes up with a no-count with an Irish lilt and ends up participating in a disastrous and fatal attempt at robbery — which leads him to a place, not quite heaven, where there is a chance for hope and redemption.

All this seems sentimental, but it struck me as a depiction of honest pain and sorrow and hard-won joy, much in the way “Our Town” appears sentimental but is actually tough as nails.

The music doesn’t so much soften matters as enrich the proceedings — the sweet circular sound of the carousel, for instance. It continues with Ann Arvia playing the town matron, Nettie, deftly and with warm force, singing and leading everyone into “June is Busting Out All Over,” the invitational “A Real Nice Clambake” and the inspirational “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Betsy Morgan, who sings almost light-hearted songs as well as teaming up with Billy on “If I Loved You,” fills the stage with strength every time she has something to say or sing.

Kate Rockwell and Kurt Boehm partner up as the other romantic duo, the sprite, devil-may-care and tart Carrie Pipperidge and her Mr. Snow, ambitious, steady and determined as a rock. Kyle Schliefer also has a nice turn as the seductive Irish roustabout-and-thief-in-chief, Jigger Craigin.

When he learns that Julie is pregnant with their child, Rodriguez lets us see and hear all of Billy’s longing, his hopes and dreams, in the famous “Soliloquy.” It’s as if for once he imagines a shining reality. It’s a girl, of course, whom he sees acting out her dreams in a dance — created originally by Agnes de Mille — performed by the remarkable Skye Mattox.

“Carousel” is by far Arena’s biggest production this season. It’s also a must-see as a fit celebration of the great gifts of Rodgers and Hammerstein at their zenith.

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