General 1-28-2007

Could Have Been Wonderful: Carousel

Jaime Kleiman takes a ride on Nautilus's "Carousel"; it could use some work. The show runs through February 11 at the Southern Theater.

Nautilus Music-Theater

Nautilus Music-Theater production’s of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking musical, Carousel, is riddled with problems. The two leads, played by Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Bradley Greenwald, are sorely miscast, about ten years too old for their parts with voices heavy on vibrato and short on lucidity. From the opening moments of the play, when two women—Julie (Peden) and her best friend, Carrie (Jill Anna Ponasik, also at least a decade too old for her part) run on giggling, the play feels contrived. Then the women open the barn-like doors of the one major set piece—an inelegant, stage-length contraption that functions as a curtain—to reveal the rest of the ensemble, hopping and partner-dancing inside what, if one didn’t know better, resembles a literal interpretation of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle.

The choreography by Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan is jejune, but enjoyable at first. But it’s a one-trick pony that’s repeated endlessly throughout the play. It doesn’t tell the love story so much as immobilize it.

The plot follows the passionate and abusive relationship of two unlikely lovers, Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow (Greenwald). When the perennially unemployed Billy learns that Julie is pregnant, he attempts to rob a man. When he is caught, he turns his knife on himself and dies.

Act Two takes an unexpected turn: instead of watching how Julie’s life as a widow and single mother plays out, we follow the shamed Billy into the waiting room of heaven, where he is given one last chance to do something good down on earth before judgment day. It’s an implausible plot twist given to unbecoming melodramatic flourishes. It’s up to the director and the actors to make the emotions resonate as much as the lush music.

Unfortunately, Peden spends much of the play looking dour and consumptive. Vocally, these songs don’t allow Peden to display her métier as a skilled coloratura soprano. Her characterization is subtle in contrast to Greenwald’s, however, who has the difficult task of portraying a man who is both sexually magnetic and emotionally deficient. Greenwald is notorious for chewing scenery and he doesn’t disappoint here, openly mugging to the audience to convey Billy’s cocksureness. He notates dramatic moments by making grotesque faces that resemble Dr. Jekyll’s monstrous transformation into Mr. Hyde, breathing heavily, falling to his knees, preening with his booming (and undeniably thrilling) baritone. When Peden sings the lyrics, “What’s the use of wondrin’ if he’s good or if he’s bad? / He’s your feller and you love him / That’s all there is to that,” you wonder why Julie remains so loyal to a man who seems (as Greenwald plays him) wholly unlikable, and even a little ridiculous.

Ben Krywosz’s directorial choices—the non-use of the stage’s considerable depth; letting Greenwald lumber about as if Billy’s invulnerability depended on it; hiring a mediocre dancer for a lengthy ballet sequence (choreographed for the original 1945 Broadway production by Agnes de Mille) who was not given inspired choreography, anyway—are baffling.

Thankfully, even a substandard production can’t destroy the sonorous and tender beauty of Carousel. Like Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Carousel’s poetic examination of love, self-loathing, and human fragility can be magnificent if done well. If it isn’t, then one can at least feel the undercurrents of something that could have—and should have—been wonderful.