"Carousel" - a musical about the circularity of life has come full circle itself.
Based on a 1909 European play, "Liliom" by Ferenc Molnar, it was musicalized and thoroughly Americanized in 1945 by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who transported it from its Hungarian setting to the Maine coast.
Now, the Europeans have made it their own again, as proved by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain's splendid Tony Award-winning production at the Lyric Opera House through Sunday.
The visual elements are the core of this beautifully realized revival. Most prominent among these are designer Bob Crowley's artistic revolving sets, with their intense blue backgrounds suggesting the sea, the sky and heaven beyond. Against these backgrounds, Crowley places designs based on a circle motif reminiscent of the carousel itself a magical piece of scenery that earns well-deserved applause though it only appears once, at the end of the prologue.
Unfortunately, some of the scenery in this touring production is a bit flimsy, but overall, the sets retain the breathtaking quality they had on Broadway. It's a quality in decided contrast to the many highly technological new musicals in which the scenery is the star. Crowley not only allows his sets to make room for the actors, he knows the scenery is there to serve the actors.
Part of that service consists of clearing the way for one of the production's other stunning visual elements the elegant choreography of the late Sir Kenneth MacMillan. From the energetic boys-vs.-girls challenge dance set to "June is Bustin' Out All Over" to the poignant second-act pas de deux by Dana Stackpole and Joseph Woelfel, this is balletic choreography rarely seen in musicals any more.
The story that all of these visuals support is one of the darkest in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, and director Nicholas Hytner accentuates that darkness.
When mill worker Julie Jordan falls in love with carousel barker Billy Bigelow, their love leads to tragedy and heartbreak, which is visited on the next generation their troubled daughter, Louise (Stackpole). Besides being valid psychology, the notion of traits repeating over generations supplies the thematic justification for designer Crowley's circle motifs.
As Julie, Sarah Uriarte conveys this tough young woman's independent spirit and maturity in both her acting and her singing, encapsulating Julie's romantic philosophy in an ardent rendition of "What's the Use of Wond'rin'." Patrick Wilson's Billy isn't up to her level vocally, but he does a decent job with his character's famous "Soliloquy."
And, most of the other voices especially in the rich choral work are strong enough to compensate for thinness of the male lead. Several supporting performances are standouts. As Julie's kind cousin Nettie, Rebecca Eichenberger's stirring delivery of "You'll Never Walk Alone" makes this anthem soar. And Sherry D. Boone brings spunk, vocal prowess and a lot of heart to the role of Julie's best friend, Carrie Pipperidge.
"Carousel" was Rodgers' favorite musical not merely because of its magnificent score, which he accurately recognized as his and Hammerstein's best. As the composer wrote in his autobiography: "It's not just the songs; it's the whole play. Beautifully written, tender without being mawkish, it affects me deeply every time I see it performed."
This National Theatre revival takes "Carousel" out for a spin that does Rodgers' assessment proud.
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday, 7: 30 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
$ Call: (410) 494-2712
Pub Date: 3/21/96