"Carousel," at The Grand Theatre
by Eric D. Snider
Published on June 4, 1999
If you already like the old Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Carousel," I'm not going to try to change your mind. Perhaps it pleasantly reminds you of a bygone era of musical theater when it was OK to sing a song whose only purpose is to express that "that was a very nice clambake."
But if you've never seen it, let me warn you: It's long and dull, it's hopelessly sexist, its plot ranges from the convulated to the downright strange, and its main character is unlikable. Oh, and it's being performed at the Salt Lake Community College Grand Theatre through June 12.
Billy Bigelow (Dan Larrinaga) is a carousel operator in 1873. He's a shiftless, womanizing lout who is inexplicably popular with the ladies, in particular a sweet gal named Julie Jordan (Stephanie Frogley). They get married behind everyone's back, including the audience's, sometime between Scene 1 and Scene 2, and we learn that Billy, unable to either control his temper or tell Julie he loves her, tends to hit her instead. Julie tells her friend Carrie (Ashley Jarrett) that this is nothing to worry about.
When Julie announces she's pregnant, the suddenly good-intentioned but still morally dim-witted Billy decides he'll do anything to provide financial stability for his unborn child -- including robbing a guy with the help of his bad-influence sailor friend Jigger (Jeffrey Owen).
Unfortunately, ham-fisted Billy gets himself killed during the robbery when he accidentally falls on his own knife. Carrie, knee-deep in subservience to her own thick-voiced husband Enoch (Tyler T. Oliphant), offers Julie the comforting words, "You're better off without him."
Suddenly it's 15 years later (in the play; in real life, it only seems that long). The Bigelows' daughter Louise (Abby Kartchner), now all of 14, is about to graduate from high school. She's been tormented all her life due to her father being dead and a thief. This is conveyed in a well-staged (but looooong) ballet number in which she dances with several guys who wind up turning on her. Billy is told he can come back to earth long enough to do a good deed -- apparently, this one good deed will undo all the bad stuff he did while he was alive. So he visits Louise, gets frustrated and slaps her hand, then whispers to his wife and daughter that he loves them. They forgive his life of abuse and irresponsibility, and all is well; Louise remarks that the violent smack didn't even hurt, and it is implied that this is because there was so much love behind it. The end.
If this plot doesn't make much sense to you, join the club. Seldom have I seen such weirdness dispensed from one stage. I could overlook all the sexism, like Carrie's sickening display in begging Enoch's forgiveness (and him stubbornly refusing to grant it) after she is seen speaking to Jigger. I could overlook the numerous long dance numbers that serve no purpose other than to show that some of the actors can dance.
What I cannot overlook is a plot that takes so long to get going -- at intermission, we've only reached Point 1 of a 10-point plotline -- and then ultimately adds up to so little. I cannot overlook a man who abuses his wife and even reaches back from beyond the grave to slap his daughter, being foisted upon us as our "hero." Yes, we are given one-sentence explanations of how he, too, was ridiculed as a child, and how he's too macho to express his love verbally -- but does that make up for it all? Apparently so. For Julie, just hearing him whisper from the Other Side that he loves her makes everything OK. Do you suppose redemption would have been so easy if it had been the wife asking for it from her husband? After seeing Carrie's groveling to Enoch after committing a very non-heinous crime, I doubt it.
The production at SLCC does what it can. The singing is beautiful all the way through, coming from the pipes of some fantastic vocalists, and the acting is generally above-average. Jayne Luke's choreography is well-done, too, though frequently superfluous. This is a very good production of a very bad show -- no amount of directorial or acting talent could save "Carousel" from being the creaky, ill-conceived old thing that it is. Many so-called "classics" deserve that label; this one does not.
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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