The Wolf Trap production of "Carousel" is bright, colorful, beautifully sung and danced and, of course, adorned with some of the finest theatrical music ever composed on this continent. The acting is generally good and some of the scenes -- notably the opening, where the thematic carousel is surrounded by people with balloons, jumpropes and cotton candy, a dancing bear and exotic dancers -- are splendidly staged.
It is also a strange experience.
Part of the strangeness is intentional. In this show, Rogers and Hammerstein took the theme of love and communication problems, which is the basic theme of all musical comedies, and set it running on a completely different track: failure, violence, death and a ghostly, ambiguous return from the dead, trying to set right what was mismanaged in life. You leave the show whistling, perhaps, but whistling slowly and thoughtfully.
But on opening night, there was an added strangeness mixed in with that of the script. In the leading role Robert Goulet -- a veteran, superstar professional of the musical stage -- acted like a novice who had not quite learned his role. He groped for lines, he spoke parts of songs that should have been sung, he imposed upon his music a choppy phrasing (often pausing after each word) that contributed nothing to the meaning of the words and seriously disrupted the flow of the music.
Insufficient rehearsal, incomplete mastery of his role, would be the most likely explanation for his behavior if the performer were someone of less stature than Goulet. Illness might be an excuse; it is hard to imagine any performance continues at this level through the rest of the run, it will be the only serious blemish in an otherwise fine production.
In the absence of a strong leading man, the show is carried with great distinction by the three leading women. Jo Ann Cunningham, in the difficult role of Julie Jorda, acted with quiet strength and brought a silver tone and a fine sense of the song's values to her big number, "If I Loved You."
But the show was very nearly stolen by Susan Bigelow in the secondary but rich role of Carrie Pepperidge. Not being a tragic heroine, Carrie has more space to be an interesting human being, and Bigelow took full advantage of the opportunities given her, strutting like a tomboy, squeaking in horror when she nearly lost her prospective husband and exploiting the comedy implicit in her eventual nine children to its fullest. She also sang beautifully in "When I Marry Mr. Snow" and "June Is Busting Out All Over," though her prancing about the stage sometimes took her almost out of range of the concealed microphones.
Nancy Eaton, in the role of Nettie, has credits that include "Tosca" and "Carmen" as well as "Sweeney Todd," and she showed that depth of experience in a beautiful performance of "You'll Never Walk Alone" -- contrasting neatly with her duet participation in "June Is Busting Out All Over." Harry Danner brought a rich tenor voice to the role of Mr. Snow and acted that slightly too proper person with distinction.
The choreography, based on that of Agnes de Mille for the original production, was as much a joy to the eye as the great music of Richard Rodgers was to the ear. The stage settings alternate between the very elaborate and the extremely simple. Most elaborate of all was the opening scene, which simply shows people milling about the carousel in a festive mood. It gave the show a strong beginning, but one wonders whether it could have been made simpler and some of the budget used for later scenes which were played against simple painted backdrops.