The Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s latest production, Carousel, is a stage classic by none other than Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Friday night, I made my way to Marian University’s campus for some good old fashion musical theatre fun. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel offers an interesting slant on life after death for one carousel barker caught up in the community of a coastal New England town. This Indianapolis performing arts event offers stunning visuals, a fun cast and a few notable songs.
One thing I always appreciate when I attend Indianapolis Civic Theatre is the two page spread in each program devoted to dramaturgy: “Entr’acte Facts.” Written by musical director Brent E. Marty, the page can be used to “enhance your theatre experience.” He always provides interesting and useful contextual information and some sort of engaging quiz to get conversation rolling either before the show or during intermission. In his “Entr’acte Facts” for Carousel, Marty offers insight into the origin of this Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration. For instance, who knew that this musical about a brash young carousel barker who marries and impregnates a local girl, dies and is given a chance to visit earth fifteen years later was based on a 1921 play, Liliom, by Hungarian born playwright Ferenc Molnar.
Initially troubled by the exotic setting and dark ending, Rodgers and Hammerstein addressed their qualms by moving the location to Maine circa 1870 and changing the ending. However, the musical still offers a structure unlike normal musical theatre from this pair. The story is not a love story, outright, but rather a examination of choices. The lovers meet and fall in love within the first three songs, doing their romantic ballad extremely early in the show. Then the play turns to focus on the town and townspeople, who create an environment where our anti-hero’s ultimate demise is made not only possible but probable.
Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s production has, as usual, stunning design elements, which create an immediate entry way into a time and place more than one-hundred years old now. Ryan Koharchik’s scenic and lighting designs scream, “Popcorn, peanuts and cotton candy,” as director Robert J. Sorbera parades them around the stage during the opening “Carousel Waltz.” Its clear from this prologue that Sorbera not only loves this world, he revels in it, easily and clearly connecting with his audience before one line is spoken or one note is sung. Throughout the show, Koharchik’s designs created a myriad of believable locations, with interesting levels and varied looks. Jean Engstrom’s costume design is a fabulous pageant of period dresses made for musical theatre with eye catching patterns and colorful prints. Her handle on both color and texture makes the costumes, alone, enough of a reason to watch the actors for two plus hours. Indianapolis Civic Theatre never ceases to impress with its production quality.
Sadly, the opening scene of the play was not as strong as the prologue and design elements. As leading lady Julie (Theresa Kloeszar) and her side kick Carrie (Besty A. Norton) stroll through the carnival, their confrontation with Mrs. Muillin (Carrie Neal), the carnival’s owner, is a timid argument between overwhelmed actors. Adding Billy Bigelow (Brand Alstott), the carousel barker, to the mix hardly saves these ladies from themselves. As the first musical numbers are shared, the strange structure of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s efforts becomes apparent. There is no big musical number to kick off this Carousel ride. Three duets in a row reveal the leading actors as either weak vocally, or not fully warmed up. I suggest the latter, because as the play unfolded their voices settled nicely into other songs. But by the time we arrive at the romantic ballad “If I Loved You” shared by the two lovers, Julie and Billy, Carousel has already gotten off to a slow start. Klosezar and Alstott’s voices nervously grind on each other until we painfully reach the end of the song.
The first big musical number, with the entire ensemble and a familiar tune, picks up the pace in the following scene, but by then we are well over half way through Act One. “June is Busting Out All Over,” sung by Aunt Nettie (Laura Lockwood), shakes us from our thus far sleepy interaction with this story. Though Nettie’s character is not hugely featured throughout, she is given the two most famous songs in the play “June. . .” and the mournful tune “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Despite a lack of character development for Nettie on stage, Lockwood’s voice conveys this town matriarch’s power. She doesn’t need a character, her big voice does the talking for her. Her voice mirrors the each songs’ theme, bringing the earth, the widowed Julie and the audience back to life through strength
Lockwood is backed by a colorfully dressed ensemble for “June. . .”, and we are given a first glimpse at Michael Worcel’s choreography. Casting for the show clearly erred on the side of finding singers and not dancers. While the ensemble offers a beautiful choral sound, their interpretation of Worcel’s moves are sloppy and half-hearted. This fact, however, is forgivable as a musical with bad singing is much worse than a musical with bad dancing. Worcel’s vision really shines through in Act Two, with the dance sequence structured very similarly to the ballet interlude in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Worcel shares the life of Bigelow’s troubled daughter Louise (Olivia Frieden) through a montage like dance sequence. This sequence deftly establishs everything we need to know about the passing fifteen years in the space of only a few minutes. This modern dance number was an interesting addition to the flow of action in the play.
The last third of Act One offers us a host of supporting actors, who give standout performances. Sorbera ably creates a Yin and Yang juxtaposition of moral standards through the characters of Jigger Craigin (Paul Nicely) and Enoch Snow (Collin Poynter). Nicely plays the angling Jigger with an angle of his own. As the shifty sailor, Jigger is responsible for tangling Billy Bigelow up in the robbery that eventually leads to his death. Nicely offers a layered performance of a sly, charming man out who gets what is good for the taking, whether that means money or women. In sharp contrast, Poynter paints Enoch Snow as an upstanding, moral man trusted by all and aspiring to live an honest life. Like Nicely, Poynter brings his own angle to the part. Both men mine for moments throughout, making their characters distinct and interesting. They each jump fully into their roles with confidence, giving the two best performances on stage.
I’m almost convinced the confidence with which these two actors took the stage boosted confidence levels for the other performers on stage. When paired in scenes with Nicely or Poynter, the actors playing Carrie, Julie and Billy stepped up their game and relaxed into their parts. As Enoch Snow’s fiance Carrie, Betsy Norton’s voice grew stronger in the two numbers they share, showing her to be a very talented singer after all.
As for the action in Act Two, I will leave that for paying patrons to decide on themselves. But judging by the “Boos” that trickled through the audience during a pre-show announcement about cell phones, which mentioned Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s plan to move to Carmel, Indiana next season, paying patrons may drop off for this group during the first years or so in their new home. I have only one question about the move. Will Indianapolis Civic Theatre become Carmel Civic Theatre after the move? Regardless, with production qualities as high as the Indiana Repertory Theatre and a season selection as snappy as Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre, I know I’ll make my way to this community theatre regardless of their location. For half the price of tickets at either of the above mentioned theatres, a fun night out engaging with Indianapolis arts can be found at Indianapolis Civic Theatre.
Check out Carousel at Indianapolis Civic Theatre now through March 26. Eat dinner in Indy at any of these Indianapolis restaurants. After the show, enjoy drinks at these refreshing Indianapolis bars. As always, stay tuned to Indianapolis News, Event and Information on Fun City Finder.com for all the latest on fun things to do in Indianapolis. This is Katelyn Coyne saying, “Make the Circle City your playground!”