Not Just Another Ride Around: Court Theatre offers its take on the classic musical “Carousel”

carousel, courtesy of Court Theatre

If you are looking for your standard over-the-top, saccharine musical, you won’t find it at Court Theatre. As a continuation of the Court’s rendering of classic American musicals starting six years ago, Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” will be running starting Saturday, March 15 through April 13. Based on the Hungarian play “Liliom” by Ferenc Molnár, “Carousel” explores the lives of individuals in a fishing village on the coast of Maine in 1873; fishermen live at the mercy of the sea while the women of the town face the harsh realities of laboring in the local mills.

It might be difficult to imagine Rogers and Hammerstein, the men who produced “Oklahoma!”, setting a musical in such a dismal landscape. But this unusually gray choice of place sets the tone for the production, displaying the gritty reality of life while still sending an uplifting message through drama and music. Because it is a departure from many other classic American musicals, Court’s Artistic Director Charles Newell describes choosing “Carousel” as the next challenge for him.

With the task of exploring the topics of drudgery, suicide, and violence through musical theater, the musical seems to be formidable indeed. For Newell, the answer was, “Let’s try that! It will challenge us in a new way. It was a question of how we could do a piece with things like suicide and violence that is still life-affirming.” Through a story of love, crime, and death, “Carousel” ultimately sends a positive message in a more realistic way than most musicals. As Newell suggests, “There is nothing more life affirming than the idea that even though we die we will never walk alone.”

Unlike most musicals in which polished musical numbers periodically break the action of the play and ring in the ears of audience members long after the show, the acting and musical aspects of “Carousel” blend much more seamlessly. This technique of “completely integrating the scenes with music” was indeed quite unusual, especially at the time in which the musical was produced by Rogers and Hammerstein. The main character’s soliloquy, “one of the longest pieces in American musical theater” according to Newell, exemplifies this technique: he considers his situation in such a subtle way that he feels entirely different emotionally at the end of piece than he does going into it.

The layered emotional landscape of “Carousel” benefits especially from the small, intimate atmosphere of Court Theatre in this production, as actors can display the subtleties of emotional turmoil without becoming subject to the exaggeration and one-dimensionality that musical theater often demands. By doing the piece completely unamplified, Newell describes how “you can hear the natural human voice played opposite of a string quartet, a couple woodwinds, and a bass, revealing the emotional complexity and nuance of the piece.”

“Carousel” opens with a waltz number independent from the rest of the play, another “radical idea on the part of Rogers and Hammerstein,” in which the audience is introduced to the world of a small fishing and mill village oriented around the brutality of a production lifestyle. According to Newell, “it is much more about the harshness of the world than the pretty, simple, and colorful.” From there evolves a messy emotional story between a young mill girl and a socially precarious carousel barker, with an ending slightly different and more positive than the original Hungarian story, but one which still transcends most other American musicals in complexity. With “Carousel,” audiences get to see Court do “what it does best,” according to Newell–”tell complicated emotional stories and provide an intimate emotional experience.”

“Carousel,” Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. March 15—April 13. Wednesday-Thursday, 7:30pm; Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 3pm and 8pm; Sunday, 2:30pm and 7:30pm. (773)753-4472. www.courttheatre.org.