Does director Susan H. Schulman hate Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's Carousel and view the 1945 musical about an abusive romance as a sexist, classist relic that deserves to be permanently mothballed? That's the only reasonable explanation for Schulman's truly ghastly production currently on at the Stratford Festival – that she came to bury Carousel, not to praise it.
Carousel, which is based on Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar's 1909 tragedy Liliom, tells the story of a carousel barker named Billy Bigelow (Jonathan Winsby) and a millworker named Julie Jordan (Alexis Gordon) in 1873 Maine. Amid a backdrop of clambakes and carnivals, Billy and Julie's romance quickly curdles as the barker loses his job, turns to liquor and begins to hit his new wife.
After discovering Julie is pregnant, however, Billy resolves to turn over a new leaf – but first hatches a plan with a whaler named Jigger Craigin (Evan Buliung) to get rich quick to support his unborn child. If ever a Golden Age musical called for sensitive reinvestigation, it's this one – especially at a time when sexual harassment has become front-page news and public tolerance for the trivialization or romanticization of violence against women is at a new low.
Near the end of Carousel comes the infamous line from Julie to her daughter: "It's possible for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and not hurt at all."
How do you create a convincing journey to that line in 2015? Right from the overture, Schulman and her choreographer, Michael Lichtefeld, demonstrate themselves unfit for the job. Their staging is filled to the brim with the worst, old-fashioned, musical-theatre schtick, dated-looking set and costumes (by Douglas Paraschuk and Dana Osborne) and performances that are condescending caricatures.
The cast has no knack for Hammerstein's perhaps ham-fisted lyrics that attempt to capture the vernacular of lower-class New Englanders; they consistently overarticulate their "ain'ts" and don't so much drop their G's as ostentatiously lower them to the ground. The gestural language they use is broad and goofy, when it's not bathetically balletic; none of the characters seems to have spent a hard day out of sea as a fisherman or cramped over a machine in a sweatshop. And in a play set by the sea and sprayed with sex, they remain completely dry.
The only real, human emotion in the evening is to be found in Gordon's heartfelt, sweet and simple performance as Julie. Her performance of What's the Use of Wond'rin' is gorgeous and wrenching.
Opposite her, Winsby's performance seems all about the tone of his voice, a beautiful baritone no doubt, but distant and hollow. His Billy is drawn the way the carnival is depicted in Paraschuk and Osborne's dippy designs – completely lacking in danger or sexuality.
Just how misguided Schulman's production is, however, only became clear to me in the scene when Julie reveals to her friend Carrie (Robin Evan Willis) that Billy has hit her. The other women of the town are eavesdropping – and one is up pulling focus on a balcony, grasping a broom with one hand, sweeping, and rolling her eyes while making a giant, goofy, tired face as if she's in a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
Worse is a scene later where Carrie is tricked by Jigger into letting him touch her sexually. It's a non-stop cringefest: Either of the ways that interaction might work – with Carrie being in on the con, or Jigger being genuinely intimidating – are dispensed for a "comic" scenario where the woman is a total idiot and the man is a lovable molester.
There's just moment after moment where Schulman's production seems to want to resurrect old stereotypes rather than subvert them. Robin Hutton gives an absolutely hateful performance as Mrs. Mullin, the widow who runs the carnival, whose only crime seems to be being an older woman with a libido. The contrast between the sexist caricature Hutton enacts and the complex, sensitive portrayal of another widow, also jealous of a younger woman, in Donna Feore's production of The Sound of Music over in the Festival Theatre, is jaw-dropping.
Ultimately, though, this Carousel seems as incompetent as it is insensitive – a colossal waste of talent and money on three hours of dishonesty. What can you say about a production where the actors can't even drink a cup of coffee with an ounce of realism?
So many directors have made smart, sensitive cases for Rodgers and Hammerstein's problematic works in recent years – from Bartlett Sher's shattering staging of South Pacific in New York, to Feore's current stellar production of The Sound of Music in Stratford. This Carousel can only be counted as an utter failure – unless Schulman is indeed part of a fifth column looking to undermine the revival.
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