Friday, February 09, 2007

Carousel (The SOB Review) - Southern Theatre, Minneapolis, MN

Carousel (The SOB Review) - Southern Theatre, Minneapolis, MN
*** (out of ****)

Necessity is certainly the mother of invention. This is especially true when it comes to spartan, regional productions of big, well-known shows.

I’ve long admired the ingenuity of small theatre company directors who are forced to rethink classic shows only to devise gorgeous and compelling new visions, often designed to maximize every last dollar. One of the best such directors in Minneapolis is Peter Rothstein, who has succeeded in brilliantly reimagining both timeless musicals and lesser known works at the city’s fledgling Theatre Latté Da.

Now I’ll add another name to that list: Ben Krywocz, who has largely succeeded via his elegantly austere Nautilus Music Theater revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. To be honest, I had never heard of this company before (I hadn’t even heard of the theatre in which it was playing), but what a find! I felt as though I discovered America and unearthed an amazingly rich motherload of talent as if a lost civilization.

With no merry-go-round in sight (unless you count the symbolic circle in the center of the stage), nearly every element that makes this a visually arresting reinvention comes from the performances themselves, derived from one of best scores from the canon of the legendary songwriting duo as well as from the gracefully balletic choreography of Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan.

This Carousel spins best when the entire ensemble takes to the stage. Often, it’s to sing in heavenly harmony on chorus-driven tunes like “June Is Busting Out All Over” or “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” This fresh-faced troupe is simply astounding for its highly stylized gift of movement (in fact, many in the ensemble are credited as members of the Zenon Dance Company). Given the abundance of truly stunning talent, it’s hard to believe you’re actually watching the work of a frugal theatre company.

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can really do with Hammerstein’s hackneyed book. That is, unless you have the kind of raw sensual chemistry between the show’s virile Billy Bigelow and gorgeous Julie Jordan. In previous viewings of John Raitt’s original Broadway performance, it’s not hard to see how his handsome bad-boy allure and sheer charisma could charm the ladies. To be plausible, you need that kind of authenticity.

In this production, Billy Bigelow is portrayed by local Twin Cities actor Bradley Greenwald. While he certainly has a rich, golden throated voice necessary for the role, he is not very well-suited to play the romantic lead. Hardly menacing, Greenwald continually contorts his face with mugging reminiscent of Jim Carey or Jerry Lewis. It was almost as if he realizes that unless he uses such distracting ticks, he’ll be mouthing along his fellow actors’ lines.

This Carousel’s Julie, played by Jennifer Baldwin Peden, is the real deal. Winsome with pretty face and voice, and a sense of urgency about her, one can easily understand why she would have caught Billy’s wandering eye. Joel Liestman as Enoch Snow is a surprising delight, and theatre veteran Susan Hofflander as Nettie Fowler brings a sense of gravitas to the proceedings, particularly with her rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Overall, I found this Carousel rather intoxicating and hauntingly exquisite. But if you want to see it, you’d better act fast as performances only last throughout the weekend. To the ensemble's credit, they've asked for good word of mouth, so here it is. Go see it!

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.

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