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.
I knew I was in trouble when everyone I knew who had ever seen "Carousel" refused to go with me to see this production of it. Even people who had only seen the movie despised it. Even some of the old people I talked to, whose generation this show came from, didn't like it.
All of which begs the question, Why do theaters keep doing "Carousel" if no one likes it? Someone must like it. And whoever that person is, he needs to be stopped.
I happen to own a CD copy of the soundtrack, from the original 1945 Broadway cast. The liner notes give a fairly concise plot summary, much like I did here -- only the CD's is serious. Here it is:
"The tough Billy and the tender Julie are married -- Julie against the warnings of the townspeople and Billy against the advice of the owner of the carousel, a woman violently and jealously in love with him. Because of the marriage Billy loses his job, becomes desparate [sic], bullies his wife, and rages bitterly -- until he learns he is to become a father. To get money to bring up the coming child (of whom he is magnificently proud in prospect) he helps with a holdup, is persuaded against his will by Jigger Craigen, a shiftless sailor friend, to take part in a robbery which leads to a murder; whereupon Billy kills himself to avoid capture. [This is NOT how it was presented at the Grand Theatre: His death was an accident, as he stupidly fell on his own knife.]
"After fifteen years of Purgatory, Billy stands at the back-door of Heaven, escorted by a Heavenly Friend. Here he meets the Starkeeper who informs him that he will never get into Heaven until he redeems his soul. He is given a chance; he is allowed to return to earth for twenty-four hours, during which time he must perform one good deed [right, because ONE good deed will make up for all the bad ones]. Billy is given a glimpse of his fifteen-year-old unhappy daughter, and steals a star to give her when he arrives on earth. Awkward and blundering, he cannot persuade the girl to accept the gift; is angered by her refusal, and slaps her. [Pay attention here:] But she is not hurt. His love transcends his roughness, and the slap feels like a kiss. [my emphasis] The child is freed of her unhappiness and Julie knows that, in spite of everything, she did not make a mistake in marrying the man of her choice."
It is rare that I have the pleasure of reading something this stupid. The story sounds even dumber in this summary than in mine, because this author actually believed the show was worthwhile!
The friend I did persuade to see it with me (his name is Dave, and he wanted his name here) hated it at least as much as I did, and it ranks in the top five worst shows I've ever seen. Fortunately, it had some good acting and singing, despite the horrendous subject material.
I should point out that the Deseret News gave it a good review, thus ruining any possibility (which was remote already) that I would ever come to respect the views of the Deseret News when it comes to theater.
And, as regular readers of this Web site have already surmised, this review prompted some angry letters. The review was printed on a Friday; on Monday, like clockwork, the following two pieces of mail arrived. Note, as usual, how words like "clearly," "surely" and "certainly" are used to indicate things that are, in fact, neither clear, sure, nor certain, but rather are conclusions jumped to by the writers. As always, these are reproduced exactly as they were submitted; all mistakes are the authors'.
While Eric Snider's reviews have been disappointing, or poorly written in the past, he clearly shows his lack of ability as a theater critic with his review of the Salt Lake Community College production of "Carousel."
First, Mr. Snider has the mistaken idea that it is his duty to tell the entire plot of any show he reviews. If theater goers have seen the previous production, they do not need a plot summary, and if they haven't, maybe they would prefer to watch the story unfold on stage rather than have the climax and ending revealed beforehand.
Second, a reviewer's task is to critique the performance, ie. the acting, singing, directing and design of a particular production. Mr. Snider spends so much effort criticizing the plot, the script, the lyrics and the morals of the show, that he fails to review the performance.
If Mr. Snider knew more about theater he might know that the story was taken directly from a classic french masterpiece, "Liliom." [I actually do know more about theater, and I actually did know that. Shame on me for not mentioning in the review every minor detail I happen to know about the show!] "Carousel" is a musical adaptation by Rodgers and Hammerstein. When did it become Mr. Snider's job to review a plot that has been repeatedly performed for nearly 100 years and a show that recently enjoyed a successful Broadway revival?
Ironically, he emphasizes his own failings when he states at the end of the review, "this is a very good production of a very bad show." When then, does he devote only 4 lines of a 5 column article to reviewing this "very good production?"
Mr. Snider's greatest show of incompetence, however, comes when he ridicules the sexist plot and complains that Billy is too easily redeemed after a life of abuse and irresponsibility. Had Mr. Snider read the note in the program, he would have known that the director, Alan LaFleur, struggled and then dealt with these issues. [He might have struggled with them, but I saw no indication onstage that he successfully dealt with them. And here's all he has to say about "struggling" in his director's note: "After much thought, I have come to the conclusion that [the show] is about honesty." Then he explains how Billy is only able to find peace because he can finally break through the walls and verbally admit that he loves Julie. But what about Julie and Louise's peace? Either they have peace at the end at the result of Billy's declaration, which would be entirely too simple and outrageous; or else, realistically, they still don't have peace, and the show ends with them unhappy. Either way, it's awful.]
There is no implied redemption, only Billy's sincere effort to help his discouraged daughter. No promise of salvation, only the peace that Billy finds when he finally admits his love to Julie. [But again, what about Julie's peace? I suspect it doesn't matter, as long as Billy's happy.] Had Mr. Snider actually watched the show, [These false accusations are getting bolder here!] he would have noticed a deliberate change [in the script]. Julie does NOT suggest (as Mr. Snider says she does) that it doesn't hurt when Billy hits because there is so much love behind it, quite the opposite. When Louise asks her mother if it is possible for someone to hit you hard and for it to not hurt at all, Julie carefully, and distinctly replies: NO, it hurts very much. [I will deal with this issue below.] It makes me wonder if Mr. Snider even stayed to see the entire performance. [Oh, ye gods, would that I hadn't!] That might account for his failure to actually "review" the show.
The SLCC production of "Carousel" is visually beautiful, vocally superb, and is one of the more honest performances that I have seen [except for that major script change she referred to a minute ago]. It deserves an honest review. [I draw the line there: Say what you will about my reviewing skills, but one thing cannot be denied, and that is that my reviews are always 100 percent honest. Do you think I like getting letters attacking me all the time? Believe me, if I could dishonestly give bad shows good reviews, I would do it, just to appease the easily offended, self-righteous, pompous pinheads who populate this county.] I would respectfully suggest that the editors of the Daily Herald find Mr. Snider an area of the newspaper where he is more capable. Failing that, I would suggest to the readers that they dismiss any of his future articles ['cause there's clearly no chance that I'll ever improve] and go see the shows themselves or ask a friend about them, for surely anyone else is as qualified, or more, than Mr Snider to review a show.
One thing Teri Griffin does not mention in her letter is that she was one of the set designers for "Carousel." I'm sure she intended to include that detail and merely forgot.
This letter points out a script change made in this production: When Louise tells her mom about the mysterious stranger who slapped her hand, she asks if it's possible for someone to slap you real hard and have it not hurt. Julie replies -- and this is what's different -- "No; it hurts very much." I don't recall what the original line was, but it was something to the effect of, "Yes." (Re-read the CD liner notes above, where it is quite clear that the slap doesn't hurt because there's so much love behind it.)
Yes, I heard the actresses say these lines; yes I took them into account. But changing that line doesn't help; in fact, it just makes the show more unclear. In changing the line, it sounds like they're saying, "Abuse is abuse, and it's awful, no matter how much the abuser loves you." Which is certainly true, and which would be a reasonable (if rather dreary) theme for the show. The problem is, they didn't change anything else in the show. When Julie finds the star that Billy left for her, she still gets a beatific, happy look on her face. At the end, when everybody's singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" and Billy indicates he loves Julie, Julie and Louise still act like something has changed, like everything's OK -- or at least on the right track toward becoming OK. Changing that one line doesn't mean they haven't forgiven Billy all of a sudden, because everything they do AFTER that line indicates they HAVE forgiven him. Yeah, the slap hurt really bad -- but it's still OK that Billy was such a jerk! If the slap hadn't hurt, at least that would fall in line, logically, with the women forgiving him so easily.
Changing the line also doesn't make sense realistically: If Louise tells her mom the slap didn't hurt, how does Julie get off saying it did? I said in my review that it is "implied" that the slap didn't hurt due to the love behind it. The characters' subsequent behavior indicates to me that, painless or not, it was OK because Billy loved everyone. Changing that line didn't change the way the characters behaved afterward.
Now for the other letter, which is shorter and less mean.
Perhaps Mr. Eric Snider got off the ride early but he certainly missed the gold ring on his review of "Carousel" at the Salt Lake Community College Grand Theaer. [Ha-ha! It is clever wordplay. Except the term is "brass ring," not "gold ring."] His job as a reviewer should be to review a particular production not the musical itself. "Carousel" was reviewed by professionals before Eric was born. They must have seen something in it that he missed as it has been successfully performed thousands of times in the last several decades and recently experienced a revival on Broadway. It contains some of Rogers and Hammerstein's most endearing and enduring songs. [Ah, my favorite argument: "It's a 'classic,' so it must be good! Other people have liked it, so it must be good! It's been around a long time, so it must be good!"]
People who read the column don't need the plot rehashed or revealed. Instead of spending most of his rather lengthy column retelling the entire plot and ripping on the musical itself while only devoting the last paragraph to his critique of the actual production, Mr. Snider's time could have been better spent telling the reader about the quality of the players, the music, the dancing, even the set, sound and lighting so we can make an informed choice. I've decided to see it anyway as I've heard from other sources about the talented actors, wonderful choreography, and fascinating set. [You'll recall that I began my review with the assertion that I would not try to convince people who already liked the show that they shouldn't like it. I don't know why this woman even kept reading beyond that.] I will enjoy [oh, good, decide BEFORE you go whether you enjoy the production or not. It saves time] hearing the message that no matter what your parents have or haven't done in life, your future is up to you. [That's actually the first reasonable explanation I've heard as to what the message of this show is. I still think it is gone about all wrong -- if that was the point, they should have focused more on Julie and Louise and less on Billy -- but at least it's logical.] I will once again thrill to memorable songs such as "You'll Never Walk Alone." I sincerely hope others will do the same. [She's recommending a show that she hasn't even seen yet?!]
Both writers said that I spend too much time on plot summary, on critiquing the show itself, and not enough time on this particular production. These are valid concerns (dying of loneliness amidst a sea of in-valid concerns), and I will address them.
1. Too much plot summary. This review was longer than most, and it was due to my revealing so much of the plot -- way more than I usually do. (The first letter-writer implied that I do this habitually, which is incorrect.) For every show, I give a brief plot summary. The reason is simple: For most people, the decision to go see a play is based more than on just whether it's a quality production; they want to know if it will interest them. A movie like "Anne of Green Gables" might be very well-done, but if the subject matter doesn't interest me (which it doesn't), then no amount of well-doneness will make me enjoy it except academically.
You can't assume, just because a show is a "classic" or is performed frequently, that everyone already knows what it's about. Even so-called "classics" have to be seen a first time. Not everyone goes to the theater a lot, and not everyone has seen even the most common shows. It is difficult for me to know which shows need a lot of explaining and which ones don't -- I go to the theater about twice a week, and I had still never seen "Oklahoma!," for example, when this was written. For whatever reason, no one in Utah had performed it recently.
In this particular review, I gave an entire plot summary, and with good reason: The show's downfall, I felt, was in its subject matter and storyline. There was no way I could convey the outrageous absurdity and confused sensibility of the show without telling the readers, "First THIS happens, then THIS happens, and then they have the gall to have THIS happen!" It wouldn't be enough to say, "The show is odd and without a valid theme"; I needed to explain why that was. And that required a plot summary.
I warned people right away that this was a review for people who had never seen it. Those who already liked the show are a lost cause. As the second letter-writer indicated, most of them will go see the show anyway.
(Did you notice how both letters mentioned the recent Broadway revival? One used it as evidence of why the plot shouldn't be rehashed in the review -- because surely most Utahns went to Broadway and saw it there -- and the other used it as evidence that the show must be good -- because surely nothing bad ever gets produced on Broadway.)
2. Too much of critiquing the show itself. This criticism is based on the wonderful old notion that because the show has been around forever and has been very popular, it is a good show; all that matters is whether these actors do it justice. The inherent quality of the script and lyrics are a given; they are not open for discussion. This is poppycock. Due to inertia and nostalgia, many crappy relics of bygone eras can and do persist in inflicting themselves upon us. A very real concern is whether a show written 50 years ago can still have any relevance today. Many, many shows do not, and that's a major reason why they don't get performed anymore. Many shows do still resonate, and that's why they deserve the title of "classic." I can't say whether "Carousel" made sense in the 1940s; I didn't see it then. But I can say how it looks in 1999. Past successes or failures of the show are, for the most part, irrelevant. If a show is bad, it needs to be identified as such.
3. Not enough on this particular production. The reason I spent so little time mentioning the Grand Theatre cast and crew is that it didn't matter. Yes, the singing was good and the acting was passable. Yes, the orchestra sounded very professional. Yes, the sets were nice. But all of these things were for naught. No amount of good singing or acting can make "Carousel" a good show, or redeem it from its inherent badness. The badness is in the script and plotline; dress it up as pretty as you want, it's still going to be bad. To have done as one letter-writer suggested and focused only on this production would have been a great disservice, for it would have glossed over the show's inherent faults -- faults that still come through loud and clear, even though the singing is pretty. It would have been like talking about how beautiful and grand a woman's dress is, when the more noticeable fact is that she has killed the babysitter. The badness of the script outweighed the good production values, and that's why I focused more on the show itself.