'Carousel' at the Media Theatre: Beautifully sung version of a puzzling classic

DM1CAROUSEL16
Joseph Spieldenner as Billy Bigelow in “Carousel,” at the Media Theatre through Sunday.

 

I’ve never understood the long-enduring popularity of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. Not that I can blame the Media Theatre’s exquisitely sung production for my incomprehension.

Rodgers and Hammerstein based their 1945 staging on Ferenc Molnar’s play Lilliom. Set in Maine in 1873, Carousel tells the story of carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Broadway’s Joseph Spieldenner), who reluctantly falls in love with factory worker Julie Jordan (Maxwell Porterfield). They marry, Bigelow beats her, refuses to find work, and then dies in a foolhardy robbery attempt when he learns of Julie’s pregnancy.

If you saw the musical that way, maybe you’d be second-guessing its appeal as well. Carousel’s score contains many Broadway standards, including the tender duet “If I Loved You,” which in Spieldenner and Porterfield’s gorgeous rendition (his voice soars throughout the evening) renders the one truly sympathetic moment in their pairing.

A number of choral numbers burst forth with the energy of a bygone age and wisdom of long-forgotten truths. Like Oklahoma, Carousel evokes visions of Americana; here a rousing chorus of fisherman and their factory-worker girlfriends sing the joys of summer (“June Is Busting Out All Over”) and the simple pleasures of a clambake. Their New England wholesomeness and sweet, rich singing seasons nostalgia with hopeful yearning.

As Julie’s cousin Nettie, the ever-delightful Elisa Matthews soars through her mezzo-soprano range, her voice anchoring a sense of earthy community in the choral numbers, and delivering the signature “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with a stunning gravity. Jesse Cline’s staging sets a tone of tragic love in an earnest time, aided by Daniel Dunn’s choreography that blooms in Act 2 during a lovely ballet that feels ethereal in 10 minutes of radiance danced by Julie’s daughter Louise (Beada Briglia).

But who endorses or cheers Carousel’s antihero and his lover? I can root for the rebellious cad of Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera, or even admire the brazen duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto. But Billy Bigelow? Spieldenner adds little in the way of charm or sympathy, presenting his pugnacious carny as less a seducer than a lout, and more in tune with the antisocial protagonist of Molnar’s play.

Even when offered the opportunity for redemption, Bigelow phones it in from the sidelines, letting the power of Rodgers and Hammerstein affect one young girl’s life – the way it has, I can guess, charmed one generation after the next, but has always left me baffled.

 

 

 

Carousel. Through Oct. 22 at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State St., Media. Tickets: $28-$53. Information: 610-891-0100,  mediatheatre.org