Not So Very Merry-Go-Round

Sometimes it takes an outsider's perspective to appreciate the nuances of a culture in ways that the members of the culture itself cannot appreciate. That certainly seems to be the case with the magnificent revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's 1945 American masterpiece, Carousel, in its current production by the Royal National Theatre of the United Kingdom.

Two distinctly American sensibilities have always characterized this haunting musical, set near the turn of the century, about a ne'er-do-well carnival barker who leaves behind a pregnant wife to fend for herself when he dies: faith in the future, and a dark current of brutality, anger, and disappointment. Most renewals of the show (including a 1956 film version) tend to downplay that brutality in favor of a glossy sentimentality. Director Nicholas Hytner (an Englishman) and set designer Bob Crowley (an Irishman) would have none of that for their Royal National Theatre interpretation, on-stage at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach through this Sunday, March 17. Hytner's subtle and insightful direction refrains from softening the violence in the relationship between central characters Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan; the director also compassionately illuminates the pair's working-class hardships. Meanwhile, Crowley's miraculous designs, influenced by the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, and Grant Wood, both underscore and enhance the director's vision. Scenes unfold in a series of stunning visual tableaux that portray stark and lonely New England landscapes as well as storybook renditions of an amusement park and heaven. Hytner and Crowley have created an "American primitive" version of Carousel that taps into the despair at the core of the show.

The opening scene will take your breath away. To the minor-key strains of Rodgers's "Carousel Waltz," the curtain rises on an enormous factory clock bearing down on young women working at a row of industrial looms. As the clock strikes the quitting hour, the music explodes and the girls burst from their chairs. The set begins to revolve; the clock and the loom disappear. On comes a huge metal gate, through which the girls escape. Next appears a wooden boat being worked on by an ensemble of young men, who dance with the girls. And then the boat gives way to an old-fashioned carousel, which twirls round and round, illuminated by hot orange light. It's an exhilarating transformation from forbidding gray factory to heady carousel ride, brilliantly imagined by the British team while simultaneously honoring Rodgers and Hammerstein's conception.

When composer Rodgers and librettist-lyricist Hammerstein joined forces in 1943, they began a partnership that changed the nature of American theater. Beginning with the seminal Oklahoma! in 1943, they departed from the sophisticated but lighthearted comedies and the score-dominated operettas that had characterized musicals since the Twenties. They created the musical play -- a combination of a well-made story, a strong score in which the lyrics directly relate to the tale being told, and modern-dance choreography in which every piece of music and every movement on the stage is part of the show's total concept. Their partnership lasted seventeen years and produced nine stage musicals, including The King and I, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music, plus State Fair for film and Cinderella for television.

For Carousel, their second career collaboration, they did away with the traditional overture that blended together snippets from the show's complete score, and in its place created a piece that stood on its own. The show opened with the wordless "Carousel Waltz," accompanied by a pantomimed prologue. After "Waltz" came the novel "If I Loved You" courtship episode, in which Hammerstein combined musical and spoken phrasing in an extended song-and-dialogue scene.

I saw the Hytner/Crowley production at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, where it played from February 28 through March 3. Regrettably, on the night I attended both Patrick Wilson (Billy) and Sherry D. Boone (Julie's marriage-obsessed best friend Carrie Pipperidge) were victimized by the Gleason Theater's unpredictable sound system.

While the role of Julie presents an actress with several lovely songs ("If I Loved You," "What's the Use of Wond'rin'" ), the acting possibilities have always seemed limited owing to Julie's apparently unconditional submission to Billy's neglect and abuse. In contrast to the traditionally passive interpretation of the character, Sarah Uriarte's Julie knows what she wants from the outset and dares to go after it, even though by the end of the show she has clearly suffered as a result of her attachment to the wrong man. As for Wilson, he imbues Billy with a swaggering air of danger mixed with insecurity and confusion. Throughout, the pair radiates an attraction to each other, and, in general, the production exudes more lust and sensuality than others I have seen. In supporting roles, Boone delivers a sassy comic performance as Carrie, while Sean Palmer portrays Carrie's intended husband Enoch Snow as equal parts endearing and insufferable.

Handkerchief warning: As Aunt Nettie, Rebecca Eichenberger belts out the show's anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone" with such conviction that she'll have you sniffling after the first few notes. But the revelation of the evening turns out to be Dana Stackpole, who plays Louise, Julie and Billy's restless daughter. Stackpole is heartbreaking in the famous ballet sequence at the fairgrounds, while Joseph Woelfel, as her anonymous dance partner, proves a powerful match.

I have one major complaint to lodge about Carousel, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the production. The show was booked for a pitifully short run in Miami Beach. It never even made it to the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. In fact, if you want to catch it, pick up the phone now and reserve tickets before it closes on Sunday in West Palm Beach.

Stage Whispers
When Evelyn Wilde Mayerson was asked to write a one-woman show about writer, conservationist, and Miami icon Marjory Stoneman Douglas, her first reaction was disbelief. Her second reaction was fear. "I got a call from [Coconut Grove Playhouse producing artistic director] Arnold Mittelman," Mayerson recounts recently over coffee in a Surfside cafe. "This was December 1994. He said, 'Evelyn, the centennial's coming up. What do you think about a play about Marjory Stoneman Douglas?' I said, 'Arnold, that sounds terrific.' So then there was silence because I'm still not getting it. He said, 'Well?' So I said, 'Well, what?' And he said, 'Well, will you accept the commission?'"

The Playhouse and the writer have something of a history, with her The Long and Lovely Suicide, Mayerson's award-winning drama about Oscar Wilde, having enjoyed a staged reading there in 1987. Mittelman had read Mayerson's most recent novel, Miami: A Saga, about 100 years in the lives of five South Florida families, and thought she was the best person to tackle the job of re-creating the inspired and inspiring life of Douglas (who will turn 106 this April) for presentation at the Playhouse. "It was a tremendous challenge," Mayerson admits. "I was flabbergasted, honored, scared to death."

Author of eight novels, two plays (including Marjory), and two children's books, the slim, graceful Mayerson is also an English professor at the University of Miami. She dove into the Douglas project, following a method she uses when writing her historically based fiction -- immersing herself in background material, including Douglas's archives at UM. In addition to interviewing people who had worked for Douglas, the playwright spent six months poring over Douglas's diaries, manuscripts, notes, and letters. Mayerson also met with Douglas herself, although she drew extensively on interviews she'd conducted with Douglas eight and fifteen years ago because, she concedes, Douglas is now very frail.

Finally, she notes, "sometime last April or May I started to write." But composing a play posed different demands than writing a long, discursive novel. "There are several difficulties that I was challenged with," Mayerson explains. "Number one, she's 105 years old. You have to reduce 105 years to two hours. What is representative that I can do in two hours? I tried to focus on her humanity, the things that make her tick. I tried to get into her life and really nail what motivates her as a person. But the play can't just be a docudrama. They'd be running out of every exit. So in addition to the inner forces of her personal life, I needed to establish some kind of fictitious scenario where we have something at stake at the beginning and we follow it through two acts." After what Mayerson terms six "wholesale revisions," the completed work telescopes decades of actual events into a two-month period. During the course of the play, the activist, at age 89, takes her campaign to save acres of the Everglades before the state legislature.

Mayerson credits Marjory's director Gail Garrisan with helping to bang the drama into its current shape. "She's been invaluable in my rewrites," Mayerson insists. "She was always there to read it. She was always there to comment. She'd say, 'I think this speech needs to be shifted here, the actress will need a transition here.'" What actress Joan Turner brought to the role once rehearsals started solidified the final draft as well. "There are a lot of changes that you do in a brand new play that you do on the spot when you hear the actors perform it," Mayerson says. "Ultimately my guiding principle has been what serves the play."

You can see Marjory at Coconut Grove Playhouse's Encore Room through April 28. Call 442-4000 for information.

Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein; music by Richard Rodgers; directed by Nicholas Hytner; with Patrick Wilson, Sarah Uriarte, Sherry D. Boone, Rebecca Eichenberger, Sean Palmer, Joseph Woelfel, and Dana Stackpole. Through March 17. Call 407-832-7469 or see "Calendar Listings.


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