MURRAY — I first heard about Utah Repertory Theater Company when an old theater friend liked the new company on Facebook. Their profound goals to start a semiprofessional theatre company in Utah focusing on overlooked theatrical options intrigued me. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel is the perfect example of the company’s daring venture. Utah Rep’s current production is my maiden voyage for both this classic work and the new company—and both are exemplary. The depth of choices and talent in this production proudly exhibit the flawed, difficult lives of this small New England town through poignant acting, emotional choreography, and wonderful voices.
Carousel was the project that lyricist and book writer Oscar Hammerstein II and score writer Richard Rodgers embarked upon after their wildly successful and groundbreaking Oklahoma! While the book was a mystery to me, tunes such as “If I Loved You,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” were familiar musical roads that just lacked a landscape. This was found on a New England port town where a dreaming Julie Jordan fell in love and married the handsome but aimless carousel barker, Billy Bigelow. Since the night they met both were unemployed. Billy’s search to support his new family played out like how we see him play poker—double or nothing after every loss until he’s bet even his wildest dreams—only to leave without knowing if the game was rigged or bad luck. After his hasty suicide during a botched robbery attempt, Billy returns one more day from heaven to try and help the wife that he barely knew and his daughter that he never met.
Samuel Ross West brought out of a rough, romantic quality to Billy to create a memorable portrayal of a difficult, conflicted character. The first introduction to his self-assured mystique during “If I Loved You” showed a man who could have any girl starting to lower some defenses for Julie’s bright questioning eyes. As he falls for her and they marry, his lack of work engendered a brusque, detached demeanor. Billy does occasionally overuse this as his motivation for being angry at Julie, yet his frustrated demeanor changes with the realization of Julie’s pregnancy and his pending parenthood. As portrayed by Samuel Ross West, the change in Billy is natural and heartwarming. All the more impressive was Samuel Ross West’s strong baritone never faltering to give both musical and emotional depth during his eight-minute “Soliquoy” expressing the vacillating dreams, fears, and determination of a soon-to-be father.
The dreaming and pensive Julie Jordan loved this man with all her heart. Amber Lee Roberts did a fantastic job of delving deep into the difficult emotions of showing how Julie could love someone who had hurt her. Julie’s early dreaminess and search for understanding was clear as Roberts’s beautiful, classical voice went from questioning to emboldened and powerful during “If I Loved You.” Roberts’s facial expressions perfectly captured a woman in love with a man, even after Billy has struck her. The endearing qualities of Julie were clear throughout the heartbreaking “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?” while she comforts friends unsure of their own marital situations. I will long remember the honesty of interaction as she told her daughter, “Yes. It possible for someone to hit you—hit you hard—and you not feel a thing.” She exhibited poise and pain in displaying a life that has learned much from experience.
Supporting her as a diligent friend is Mimi West’s portrayal of Carrie Pepperidge. She provided a powerful backup of voice and friendship to Julie at all times. Her simply blocked but well communicated “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” showed all her honest amiability and introduced a balanced woman with a slight desire for showing off. This only is in contradiction to her intended Enoch Snow, played by Scott Cluff in a slightly awkward but upright, funny, and enjoyable portrayal. However, in Enoch’s self-righteous confrontation during “There’s Nothin’ So Bad for a Woman,” the almost farcical rejection of Carrie as a loose woman seemed to deviate from an evening of completely honest, grounded performances from both Cluff and the rest of the cast.
All of these performances were deftly utilized and influenced by the direction of Johnny Hebda. I appreciated the limited blocking but high level of interaction apparent in intimate scenes like “If I Loved You” and “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan.” This was then wonderfully paired by the dozens of stories that were told between couples, friends, and the town in larger scenes like “This Was a Real Nice Clambake.” Regardless of scenes with a full cast worth of action from the choreography, each person still had a story to tell and was encouraged to tell it on the right scale and at the right time to control focus. For example, Jigger (Kyle Allen) physically accosted a bar maid on the side of the raucous tavern song “Blow High, Blow Low.” This choice showed a desire to not hide this reproachable human being, even by a relatively fun song. Helping block and delve into the characters choices made each scene a pleasure to watch as we were made privy to the joys and sorrows of this town.
The wonderful intimacy created by each actor individually was only augmented by fantastic choreography by William Cooper Howell and Christy Hodder were apparent from the opening “Carousel Waltz.” This dance and others enhanced the world of the play by including the delicate precision of factory workers at the loom, a carnival full of bowlegged peddlers, and much more. I did wish a more unified pattern in the creation of a human carousel using candy-striped poles, but the overall effect did serve well. Another impressive moment included an energetic tavern dance in “Blow High, Blow Low” that allowed the male cast members to shine. This is in contrast to many other shows that don’t accumulate talent enough or trust their male talent to perform well.
All of this climaxed in the beautiful ballet “Billy Makes a Journey.” Billy watched the trials of his 15-year-old daughter, Louise (Elsa Hodder), in a very visceral display her frustrations and desires. Elsa Hodder was clearly accomplished as a ballerina and an actress, and Louise’s joys and pains of her journey of love and sensuality was executed with a beauty of her technique and raw nature of her emotions. The display was beautiful, but also dark and difficult. The love Louise shared with a carousel barker of her own (Johnny Wilson) evoked a powerful response to the rapture and pain associated with strained love. The level of sensuality displayed was surprising and occasionally unsettling for my own tastes. The themes, however, were very clear as this enigmatic barker could call Louise back any time she tried to escape. Yet despite all her efforts to pull him back, once he left, her world came crashing down.
The mostly unit set (designed by Allen Stout) worked well with its many levels, ramps and benches that could easily be manipulated to be a pier or a beach or high school graduation setting. The carousel was prominently displayed stage right and bathed in red light, while the starkeeper’s back gate to heaven was bathed in blue stage left like a contrasting heaven and hell. The lighting (by Michael Gray) seemed to be not much more than this, but had appropriate tones and kept the actors well lit.
There was a high quality associated with this production so far, yet there were still some areas that need some improvement to solidify the up and coming Utah Rep as a premiere theatrical destination. There were some actors (playing roles like Mr. Bransom and the policemen) who still lacked a clear motivation in their speaking scenes, a fact made more apparent by the solid leading performances. Also, during Billy’s soliloquy the sound had some basic problems with popping or a slight buzzing when the voices were louder. Most cast members were not provided microphones, and I know in the front row I heard most things, but I was unsure if their voices always carried through the whole house. Also, the live orchestra added a great deal to Richard Rodgers’s memorable score but I noticed at least a couple spots of trepidation between the musicians and the actors.
These drawbacks were all minor at best and the show was exemplary in story presented. Carousel was a memorable experience. It dealt openly with difficult choices, hardened mindsets, and sensitive issues. They are hard to all reconcile and make the senseless death of Billy and the aftereffects on Julie and Louise all the more tragic. However, like your own first trip on carousel as a child, there was definitely some high points in the love and hope portrayed in this classic musical story.