It’s well-known that Puccini and Gershwin wanted to set Ferenc Molnar’s play Liliom operatically, and that the Hungarian playwright denied them permission. But Molnar was so charmed by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first effort, Oklahoma!, that he granted them the right to set his play to music.

It’s fascinating to speculate what Puccini or, Gershwin might have done with the dark Liliom, about an unemployed carnival barker who kills himself in a robbery attempt but is allowed to return to earth as a beggar.

He tries to give his daughter a star stolen from heaven, and when she refuses it, he strikes her in despair and is sent back to purgatory. Pretty bleak stuff, though it might have been at home in the opera house.

For years Richard Rodgers had been writing songs with Lorenz Hart for various musical comedies, revues, and movies; in the 30s they, along with a young choreographer named George Balanchine, had experimented with incorporating dance into their work. They were also concerned about transitions from dialogue to music, and set talking to music as a prologue to singing. As wonderful as so many of those old Rodgers and Hart songs are, they are often only vaguely related to the play’s action; the style of the time was still to allow both songs and play to stand on their own.

When Hart’s alcoholism became so bad that he was no longer able to work (Rodgers always said he would have gone on working with Hart forever if it had been possible), Rodgers teamed up with the successful playwright Oscar Hammerstein II. Together they created a new uniquely American art form: the musical (or musical theater, as they termed it), in which every song advanced the story, every dance was done in character, and the line between music and drama was so magnificently blurred that you never knew when dialogue might turn into song or action into dance.

Carousel soon followed Oklahoma!, developing even deeper characters and containing more music. Its ending is certainly more optimistic and uplifting than Liliom’s (Molnar was said not only to have approved but to have loved it), but much of the play’s bleakness remains intact. Certainly the central character of Billy Bigelow is as earthy and tough as ever, even if he has his more gentle moments.

It’s most appropriate that Carousel should be the first musical presented by Chicago Opera Theater, for even though it is not an opera in the strict sense–American vernacular or otherwise–it is a musical with many operatic elements, which can benefit greatly from what an opera company can bring to them.

Plenty of tender loving care was put into the present production, and it shows. Virtually every aspect is extremely entertaining and well handled. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the high quality of the acting–during both the singing and the many scenes of purely spoken dialogue. Acting is a glaring weakness of most operatically presented musicals or operettas (Lyric’s recent Die Fledermaus, for instance), but the acting here could match that of any Broadway production. The characters connected with one another, and each was concerned with the overall effect of a scene rather than with stealing the show. That is quite unusual. And, thank heaven, there were none of the usual corny country accents.

Dominic Missimi’s careful direction and John McGlinn’s conducting made this a fast-moving production that wasn’t oversentimentalized; the action and music came fast and furious, without ever seeming too brisk. Despite the often-dated dialogue, the play didn’t drag. McGlinn, a former Chicagoan who has made a career out of reconstructing and recording Broadway musicals, did a superb job with the orchestra, though on opening night the strings went decidedly flat early in the second act. The orchestral sound was considerably marred by the tinny amplification (sound “enhancement,” the program termed it) by microphones placed on the edge of the stage. These microphones also “enhanced” the singing, at least when the singers approached the edge of the stage–something COT had bragged would not occur. Even if slight amplification was necessary for the dialogue (I’m not convinced of this, but the company is used to its much smaller home base, the Athenaeum Theatre), it should not have been used during the musical numbers; though minimal, it was distracting and intrusive.

Baritone Louis Otey, who took over for Thomas Allen in Lyric’s Fledermaus in January and stole the show, did a superb job as Billy Bigelow. His voice sometimes strained in its upper range (at the end of “If I Loved You,” for instance), but his characterization was first-rate and never corny, and his delivery of the famous “Soliloquy,” on whether he will have a boy or a girl, was extremely moving.

The most effective performance I have heard of this piece came from, of all unlikely sources, Mel Torme, who calls the soliloquy a turning point in American music and the most moving piece ever written for a musical. When Carousel had its original Broadway run, he would rush over to hear it every night he could, either between his own sets or after a show. Once when Torme was standing upstairs in the back of the balcony, Richard Rodgers came over and caught him crying during the scene. They had never met before. “Really gets to you, eh?” said Rodgers. “I’m sorry, Mr. Rodgers, but it really does. It’s so beautiful.” “Well, kid, when you stop crying, stop coming.”

Soprano Gloria Capone was an effective actress as Julie Jordan, Bigelow’s ever loving and loyal wife (and Otey’s wife in real life), but her pitch was often unfocused and she tended to use far too much vibrato, which didn’t help her diction.

As Carrie, Broadway veteran Maureen Brennan stole the show with her thoroughly charming portrayal and singing. Tenor Kurt Hansen was terrific as the persnickety Mr. Snow, though he was in very poor voice, was usually straining, and couldn’t be heard well. Bass Carl Glaum as Jigger was superb vocally and as an actor. Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Gweneth Bean was a likable Nettie and sang the plum song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” with undeniably beautiful sound and pathos, but with awkward register shifts and far too much large vibrato for my taste.

The chorus was first-rate, with excellent balance and diction; every word was clearly understandable. For the most part the costumes and sets were colorful and impressive. The choreography of Nancy Teinowitz was creatively thought out and mostly well executed, particularly in the major sequences (some of the minor ones were weak). Little effort seemed to have been made to preserve Agnes de Mille’s choreography, which was a vital part of the original show.

COT set itself a major challenge in doing this production, and overall it was magnificently realized. So I hope this is the first of many musical-theater productions by the company.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.