- Kalliope deftly spins a tale of a guy (left), his girl (center), and an obtrusive support beam (right).
Chances are, if someone wrote a tuneful play today trying to brush off a man's physical abuse of his wife, stating that the blows don't really hurt if you're in love, the composer and lyricist would become pariahs in the entertainment world. But Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein are well past that sort of judgment, as is their hybrid realist/fantasy musical Carousel. While it seems a bit late to seriously protest the insensitivity of their take on misfit Billy Bigelow and the roughing up he gives his bride, the ever-understanding Julie Jordan, at least one shuddering cringe is still in order. That said, this production at Kalliope Stage is replete with fantastic voices that give this enduring score a rich and satisfying once-over.
Carousel is set in a New England amusement park of a more naive era, but the sweet aspects of this life -- summed up in the lilting standard "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" -- are made a good deal less sugary by Billy, a feisty carnival barker who's always ready for a fight. To Rodgers and Hammerstein's credit, they continually take chances with their work, whipsawing between homey small-town whimsy ("A Real Nice Clambake") and grittier fare, such as the attempted robbery of a local moneybags that leads to tragedy. They even have the temerity to cap it all off with some heavenly intervention before the rousing finale.
One look at the small Kalliope performing space (with what is apparently a weight-bearing pillar smack in the middle), and you'd wonder why anyone would try to mount a show requiring 25 cast members, some involved crowd scenes, and a couple of ballet sequences. But director Paul F. Gurgol manages to shuttle everyone in and out while giving his singers room to massage that incredible music. The boyishly brash Aaron Ramey is physically perfect as Billy, and while his half of "If I Loved You" doesn't quite capture bashful innocence of love a-blooming, his solo about his baby-to-be is heartfelt and affecting. As his betrothed Julie, Joan Ellison sings like an angel -- which she probably would have been, if she'd had to endure a few more beatings.
Some of the best voices, however, reside with the secondary players. As the rigid but loving fisherman Enoch Snow, stocky William Clarence Marshall literally shakes this storefront theater's rafters with his powerful pipes, making one wish he had two or three more songs. His wife is played by Carrie Hall, who is blessed with a lovely voice and eyes that form into happy little half-circles whenever she smiles (you can see this, because you're never more than 15 feet from the stage in Kalliope's intimate environs). Rounding out the major singers is Marla Berg, who as Nettie delivers "You'll Never Walk Alone" with operatic panache.
Staging Carousel in such a cramped space is a bit like building a ship in a bottle, but this production is superbly handled, from spot-on costuming to ballet choreography that avoids seemingly imminent collisions with walls and poles. And the glorious singing makes it all worthwhile.