Back in the 1950s my sister and I would while away an afternoon in Delaware County listening on our Victrola to the 1945 musical, Carousel.
We dreamed of Julie Jordan - the fragile foil to carnival barker Billy Bigelow. We knew every word. I still sing the show tunes.
Villanova Theatre’s “reimagined” production that opened March 28 on the university campus evokes the wonder and sadness of the original Rodgers and Hammerstein production without feeling dated.
“It was moving,” said one older theater-goer after Thursday night’s performance. “Still works,” said a younger member of the audience.
On a black-box stage, bare except for a barrel, bench, or string of lights, the cast weaves with deft footwork and crisply-delivered lines and lyrics the story of the strapping Bigelow and the naive Jordan.
The musical is about the enduring power of love - a theme that stands the test of time no matter what the context.
It is set on the Maine coast in the late 1800s; the ladies’ flowered dresses and the men’s straw hats reflect that.
Jordan falls for the swaggering Bigelow and marries him. He loses his job just as she learns she is pregnant.
Intent on supporting his new family, the shiftless Bigelow agrees to help commit a robbery. When that goes wrong, he takes his own life and is sent “up there,” according to the playbill.
The Starkeeper in the other realm allows Bigelow one day on earth 15 years later to see his daughter. What happens then allows the lonely, fatherless girl and her solitary mother to summon the strength to go on.
The haunting ballad, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which captures that moment, lingered in my head long after I left the theater. It is no wonder that Ben Brantley of the New York Times called the musical “Richard Rodgers’ most beautiful score.”
A word about the performers
Michael Jansen, who earned a graduate certificate in practical theatre from Villanova in 2011, was a bit tinny at the start, but once he warmed up, projected a vigorous tenor and a nasty roughness that nailed Bigelow’s character.
Jessica O’Brien, a graduate student in theatre at Villanova, was innocent and refreshing as Jordan, with a lovely, soaring soprano.
Jen Jaynes, as Julie’s friend, Carrie Pipperidge, was absolutely charming, with a lovely voice and precise diction. Jaynes is a graduate theatre student at Villanova.
Chris Monaco was hilarious as the goofy Enoch Snow, a businessman “who can’t seem to lose the smell of fish.” Monaco is studying musical theater at Temple University as an undergraduate.
The acoustics in the theater are excellent; it is possible to hear every word.
A word on economics
In these times, when we bundle trips to the pharmacy and grocery to avoid using gas, it is welcome to have such high-caliber entertainment close to home.
The price is right, too. My ticket on a Thursday night cost $23. Because the audience sits so close to the stage, there are no bad seats. On the weekend, tickets cost $25, but discounts are available for seniors, students, and groups.
The theatre is located in Vasey Hall, one of the big stone buildings facing Lancaster Avenue near Ithan. For GPS users, the address is 800 Lancaster Avenue, Villanova.
The ushers are welcoming, but wear some layers - the theater can be cold.
Productions run through April 1, and again from April 10 to 22.
For information, call the box office at 610-519-7474 or log on to: theatre.villanova.edu.