The company of Carousel. Photo: CenterStage

Classics in Concert: Carousel

Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Music by Richard Rodgers
Based on Frenc Molnar’s play “Liliom” as adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer
Original choreography by Agnes De Mille
Directed by Erin Sillman

Musical Director John Austin Clark

A review by Regina Harris

Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Regina Harris. All rights reserved.

Set in a small American eastern seaboard town in the early 1900s, a young millworker, Julie Jordan falls in love with a jaded ne’er-do-well carnival barker named Billy Bigelow, and things get even more messy from there. 

From the inception of this play, based on a 1909 Hungarian play called Liliom, the challenge was to make the emotional ride taken by these characters not only palatable but desirable. Rodgers & Hammerstein did it, managing to pen some of the most haunting music and evocative lyrics ever written. Centerstage at the JCC opened its production Thursday; and while I always expect a solid production from this company, it is not an understatement to say that every one of the performances was outstanding.

Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge are working-class girls at the turn of the 19th century; a carnival has come to town and the girls can’t stay away. The handsome carnival barker, Billy Bigelow, enchants young Julie and she falls in love. He’s clearly not good for her; he is marginally employed and has a brusque manner to go with his tough-guy exterior. Carrie is appalled by Julie’s choice of Billy compared to Carrie’s ambitious and morally incorruptible Enoch Snow. 

The contrast between the two couples is on full display in the way they sing about their relationships: Julie and Billy muse about what it would be like if they loved each other (a thought to which neither can commit) while Carrie and Mr. Snow dream about canoodling in the distant future after their extensive family goes down for the night. 

Jennifer Poliskie’s exquisite soprano literally aches with the longing to give her heart to Billy during “If I Loved You.” Kentucky Opera veteran Liam O’Daniel-Munger’s baritone rises to the challenging range of the score with ease, revealing his longing to let his guard down with Julie. It was heartbreaking to hear just how close this couple was to admitting their true feelings for each other, but they couldn’t quite make it to the brass ring.  

On the other hand, Carrie (Kate Willis) gushes about her “almost perfect beau” during “Mister Snow” highlighting the differences between the men. We find out just how polar opposite the couples are when Enoch Snow (Phil Gosselin) and Carrie perform the whimsical “When the Children are Asleep.” Firmly grounded in their belief in their perfection for one other, they delightfully fantasize about their future, their prospects and a large family. Their strong performances bring balance and levity to the darker feelings left us by the other couple.

Collette Delaney-Mattingly reliably commanded the stage as Nettie Fowler, informing us it’s springtime and the season of love while leading the ensemble in the energetic “June is Bustin’ Out All Over.” Later, her impeccable rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is exactly as its meant to be: enormously powerful and deeply poignant.

The quality of the ensemble kept revealing itself with each number. Chorus members Rita Hight’s and Alexis Paxton’s comical additions to “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone” were a delight. 

Sadly, the JCC performance space does not leave much room for the actors. This show requires a small orchestra, which needed a good 2/3 of the stage space. They were masterfully conducted by John Austin Clark but were placed awkwardly behind the actors, who could not look to him for direction. Also, more space would have allowed the cast to move more freely; at times the minimal stage felt cramped for the pared-down size of the players, not to mention the enormity of emotion provided by this talented group. 

Something I often notice in musicals is that very young dancers work so hard at getting the choreography right that their movement doesn’t always flow, but this wasn’t the case with Kennedy Julian as Louise, who was competently supported by the other very talented ensemble dancers. Their performance seemed effortless. However, I found myself again wishing they had more space to explore.

I was introduced to this musical score long ago when intimate partner violence and patriarchal misogyny were so accepted that jokes about them were part of everyday conversation. It seems an odd choice to mount this play in 2023 with its 1945 sensibilities; modern audiences are more well-versed in relational toxicity. Some of the dialog sound horrifically dismissive to the modern ear. Centerstage Theatre director Erin Sillman sought to revisit this intricate musical theatre staple, controversial as it is, to reveal its relevance for today’s audience. She invites us to review the story with a modern lens, seeking to understand the long arm of generational trauma: Billy had suffered; he caused Julie to suffer; and Louise continued to suffer from his long-past actions. Sillman’s hope is that we also consider the healing power of forgiveness and in “loving oneself more than the trauma one has experienced…and learning how to move forward.” This production left me realizing that Carousel is the most profound type of love story, the one in which it becomes possible to love yourself no matter your past trauma. It is well worth a revisit. 

Classics in Concert: Carousel

August 17, 19, 24, 26 @ 7:30 pm
August 20 & 27 @ 2:00 pm 

Centerstage at the Trager Family JCC
3600 Dutchman’s Lane
Louisville, KY 40205

Regina Harris has lived in Louisville for nearly three decades and has, at various times, worked for many of its premier theatre companies and venues. She earned a degree in Humanities from the University of Louisville in 2015. Currently, she works as Youth Development Specialist during the school year at United Crescent Hill Ministries. To express her love for great food as well as Louisville’s history and architecture, she is a tour guide with Louisville Food Tours.