Spectacular Show with the Wrong Message
Stratford Festival’s production of Carousel now on stage at the Avon Theatre is spectacular. The sets and costumes are beautiful and the singing and dancing powerful.
Carousel is the story of Julie Jordan, an innocent and naive girl who marries the good-looking carney, Billy Bigelow, who runs the carousel. The marriage is rocky, brief and doomed. Bigelow leaves the carnival but can’t find other employment, which is used as an excuse when he hits his wife. He kills himself when his failed attempt at robbery goes bad, and Julie is left to raise their daughter, Louise, on her own. Louise grows up being bullied because her father was a wife-beater and a thief. Not a feel-good story.
Still Stratford Festival has made it look good. On entering the theatre, you see and hear a beach scene projected on a big screen – ocean waves are rolling in with seagulls flying and squawking. You are in a little seaside town in 19th century New England.
A carnival brings colour to the barn-board clad town. Later there are ships’ masts along the small harbour. The most outstanding set is the namesake carousel. Bright lights outline it as glimmering glassy horses twirl around the stage.
The carnival costumes are exceptional. All the carnival characters – the bearded lady, the stilt-walker and so on – are dressed in unique, interesting garb.
There is plenty of action with the clambake preparation and the robbery scene. The rowboat goes across to an island in the fog.
Carousel has a wonderful score, which includes favourite songs such as “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “If I Loved You” and “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.” These are all sung perfectly.
The cast is excellent. Alexis Gordon makes her Stratford debut as Julie Jordan, and Jonathan Winsby is Billy Bigelow. Robin Hutton is very convincing as the sassy Mrs. Mullin, the carnival owner, who tries to get Billy back. The many supporting characters all contribute in song and dance. And they have all worked on their New England accents, right down to the “Ayuh” for yes.
The show also boasts lively, energetic dancers. In preparation for the big clambake, the men of the company show amazing dance skills. There is a beautiful ballet, featuring daughter Louise (Jacqueline Burtney) on the beach. She is insulted by Enoch Snow Jr. (Ethan Lafleur) and then flirts with a Carnival Boy (Alex Black).
The entire production has the look and feel of a show from 1945, the year Carousel was originally mounted on Broadway. And while it is a feast for the eyes and ears, it doesn’t sit well in the stomach.
This may be a near flawless production of Carousel, but I must add that I don’t like it. The story makes me cringe. It’s about wife abuse and domestic violence. In the program, Director Susan Schulman says that Rodgers and Hammerstein were “shining a light on a very unsettling intimate dynamic, one that is all too often kept secret and in the dark – even to this day.” Perhaps this musical would have redeeming social value, if it condemned Billy Bigelow. Yes, his daughter pays for his sins, but he himself isn’t punished adequately. Louise’s line “Honest, there was a strange man here, and he hit me hard. I heard the sound of it, Mother, but it didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt at all. It was just as if he kissed my hand,” makes me so uncomfortable. Is it alright for a man beat his wife or daughter if he doesn’t hurt them? Or is it alright for a man to hit a woman if they love each other? That horrible sentiment should not be perpetuated.
Carousel continues in repertoire until October 16 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford. Tickets are available at the Stratford Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or check www.stratfordfestival.ca
Photo: Alexis Gordon as Julie Jordan and Jonathan Winsby as Billy Bigelow in Carousel. Photo by David Hou.
Carousel – Stratford 2015
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Susan H. Schulman
Choreography by Michael Lichtefeld
Performed by Alexis Gordon, Jonathan Winsby, et al.
Produced by Stratford Festival
Avon Theatre, Stratford
May 5 to October 16, 2015
Reviewed by Mary Alderson