Carousel Court Theatre

“We know we belong to the land,” sings the cowboy Curly in the title song of Oklahoma! The groundbreaking 1943 musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, designed to buoy the spirits of a nation at war, is a jingoistic celebration of America’s rugged moral and physical strength. In this earthy comedy about two cocky cowhands wooing strong-willed farm girls, the twin romances symbolize the promise of a bright future for a people whose mission was to tame, defend, and expand the territory God gave them.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s second Broadway show, Carousel, opened in April 1945—a week after the death of President Roosevelt, whose determined optimism had guided the country through depression and war. Though the end of World War II was in sight, Americans were increasingly aware of the conflict’s cost—the unbelievable scope of the carnage and genocide around the world, the staggering casualties among U.S. troops, the challenges fatherless young families faced in an uncertain future.

Carousel replaced the confident assuredness of its predecessor with a darker story and questioning tone. The work’s conflicted characters seek answers about the meaning of life that the visible natural world can’t provide. Where Oklahoma! embodies Manifest Destiny, Carousel is rooted in the transcendental idealism advocated by Ralph Waldo Emerson and others in 19th-century New England, where the story is set.

Some audiences are inclined to think of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s shows as contrived, simplistic Americana. But in recent years artists have challenged these assumptions by sweeping away the layers of corn and cuteness accumulated over decades of dinner-theater productions. Last year the American Theater Company presented a revival of Oklahoma! that exposed the show’s grit and vigor through unorthodox portrayals and inventive musical direction that emphasized the influence of folk and country/western music on Rodgers’s score. Now Court Theatre is following suit with Carousel, coproduced with Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, where the show will go after its Chicago run. Directed by Charles Newell with associate director Hollis Resnik, with musical direction by Doug Peck and choreography by Randy Duncan, this intimate staging succeeds on the strength of textured performances, exquisitely transparent chamber-orchestra arrangements, and—most important—the seamless interplay of speech, song, and dance.

Set in a fishing village on the coast of Maine in 1873, Carousel, like Oklahoma!, is constructed around two parallel love stories. One focuses on the relationship between a young mill worker, Julie Jordan, and a womanizing carnival barker, Billy Bigelow; the other concerns Julie’s coworker, Carrie Pipperidge, and an ambitious fisherman, Enoch Snow. The two men represent opposite attitudes as identified by Emerson in his 1842 lecture “The Transcendentalist.” “The materialist insists on facts,” Emerson wrote, “on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and Will, on inspiration, on miracle.” Enoch—the quintessential materialist—dreams of getting rich by canning herring and calling them sardines; he’s an empire builder who charts his success by the number of boats he builds and the number of children he fathers. But Billy, an outsider to this tightly knit community, is a troubled drifter, a small-time crook from New York who has become a local celebrity as a carnival barker luring local working-class girls like Julie to spend their hard-earned pennies riding the carousel. He’s a roughneck and a bully but also a “star-gazer and dreamer,” to borrow Emerson’s description. “There’s a hell of a lot of stars in the sky, and the sky’s so big the sea looks small,” Billy tells Julie when they meet. Then, displaying the low self-esteem that undercuts his idealistic wondering, he adds: “And two little people, you and I, we don’t count at all.”

Julie—whose last name, Jordan, signals a wisdom deep as a river—perceives the tender, dreaming soul behind Billy’s cocky facade. They fall in love—but shyness, pride, and hard experience inhibit them from being able to say “I love you” to each other. The best either can say is “If I loved you”—the title of the show’s famous duet, in which the couple reveal their feelings even as they try to conceal them. And what would happen “if I loved you,” each believes, is that “soon you’d leave me... never to know how I loved you.” The prediction comes true: two months into their marriage Billy, full of anger and self-doubt and unable to earn an honest living, turns his rage on Julie. He doesn’t beat her, he insists—he just hits her sometimes. And she insists it doesn’t hurt. When he learns she’s pregnant, he decides to rob the owner of the mill where she worked; failing in that, he kills himself. But thanks to the kindly generosity of a heavenly Starkeeper, his spirit returns to earth to set things right by bringing hope to his fatherless teenage daughter and affirming his love to Julie.

Based on the 1909 play Liliom by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar, Carousel is a difficult show to pull off. Some viewers will reject its seeming tolerance of domestic abuse; others will resist its overt religiosity. Blending elements of straight drama, musical comedy, folk opera, and ballet, it challenges audiences to suspend their skepticism in order to embrace, at least for two and a half hours, a belief in fate and the redemptive power of love. (This was a frequent theme in Hammerstein’s librettos, from his groundbreaking 1927 Show Boat, written with Jerome Kern, to later collaborations with Rodgers, including South Pacific and The King and I.)

Nicholas Belton, a handsome young man with a clarion tenor, conveys both anger and pathos as Billy. Full of animal physicality, he barks threateningly at women the way a scared dog barks at another dog, then pulls back defensively, his head dropping like a mongrel afraid of its master’s whip. Belton’s Billy is a doomed loser, yet when something makes him happy—as when he learns that Julie is pregnant—his boyish excitement is contagious enough to make one think that maybe things will work out.

The serene strength and lyrical soprano that Johanna McKenzie Miller brings to Julie provides a strong contrast to Belton’s Billy—perhaps too strong. The production’s notable weakness is the lack of passion between the lovers, who must connect on a physical level as well as a spiritual one. Still, Miller has wonderful moments, as when she heartbreakingly exposes the depth of her feeling for Billy in “If I Loved You” even as she denies it.

Jessie Mueller’s feisty Carrie is well matched by the righteous earnestness and inner conflict Rob Lindley brings to the role of Enoch. “Every materialist will be an idealist,” Emerson asserted, and Lindley is perfect as a man struggling to unite those two elements of his nature. Court Theatre vet Hollis Resnik is in fine form as Mrs. Mullin, the sluttish carnival owner who employs Billy for services not exclusively limited to his skill at the carousel. As Nettie, who comforts her widowed niece Julie with the hymn “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Ernestine Jackson brings an inspirational power that gives the familiar song new life. (However, having Jackson and Resnik double in the roles of Billy’s heavenly guides is somewhat confusing.) As Billy’s daughter Louise, Laura Scheinbaum brings fierce rebelliousness to her balletic pas de deux with Tommy Rapley as a carnival barker who seduces and abandons her, just as Billy had done with so many women before Julie. The period authenticity of Jacqueline Firkins’s costumes offsets the abstract minimalism of John Culbert’s sloping set.

Back in 1990 Chicago Opera Theater presented a sumptuous Carousel at the Shubert (now LaSalle Bank) Theatre with a full orchestra, emphasizing the score’s operatic richness. Here Doug Peck’s gentle arrangements for winds, strings, and piano highlight the gorgeous internal harmonies and complicated counterpoint that enliven Rodgers’s seemingly simple melodies; and Newell and Peck’s cast inflect their songs conversationally, illuminating oft-overlooked depths in Hammerstein’s brilliant book. This simple, intimate staging speaks movingly to anyone who has lost a loved one, anyone who regrets hurt inflicted and endured, anyone who longs to utter words left unsaid.v