Go ahead, scoff. But in the gospel according to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, you’ll get through whatever hardship lies in your path if you face it head-on, in optimistic fellowship.
“When you walk through a storm keep your chin up high /And don’t be afraid of the dark,” kindly Nettie sings in “Carousel.”
“. . . Walk on through the wind, walk on through the rain / Though your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart / And you’ll never walk alone. You’ll never walk alone.”
Boy, do those chest-swelling lyrics sung by Ann Arvia come across as a motivating anthem at this moment in Washington where, 2½ miles from the White House, Arena Stage’s pristinely inspirational revival of the melodically transporting 1945 musical had its official opening Thursday night. Rodgers and Hammerstein reach back into 19th-century rural America (by adapting a 1909 Hungarian play, Ferenc Molnár’s “Liliom”) to suggest that even for the most troubled and violence-prone among us, there can be redemption.
Now, a contemporary audience may justifiably find some aspects of “Carousel’s” antique sensibility hard to swallow, especially as they regard the salvation of carnival barker Billy Bigelow, played by Nicholas Rodriguez, in a commanding, career-high performance. The musical, set at an amusement park on the New England coast, relates, through the vicissitudes of Billy’s courtship and marriage to Julie Jordan (a becomingly composed Betsy Morgan), the story of a man who just can’t settle down. He is a controlling brute who — though we never actually see the act — uses his fists against Julie. By our standards Billy is an abuser, period, and not entitled to sympathy.
But taking into account that the musical was written more than 70 years ago, let’s also remember that “Carousel” does not excuse or sweep his antisocial behavior under the rug: He’s called out on it repeatedly. And Julie’s disturbing passivity, too, is challenged by her friends, who insist that she would be better off without him.
I suspect, though, that some theatergoers simply and understandably won’t be able to reconcile themselves comfortably to a musical in which the victim essentially throws up her hands in surrender. “Oh, what’s the use of wond’rin / If he’s good or if he’s bad,” Julie sings in a lilting Act 2 ballad. “He’s your feller and you love him / That’s all there is to that.”
Well, no: We’re aware today that that’s not all there is to that. And still, for those who can factor in the evolution of our values and the larger spiritual dimensions of remorse and forgiveness that Rodgers and Hammerstein are dealing with, this “Carousel” is more than worth your time. Director Molly Smith, in the most assured work of her decade and a half at Arena, delivers a physically, musically and rhetorically impressive production, one that allows us to judge Julie’s way of thinking, and everything else in the peculiar tale, for ourselves. And with its exquisite songbook — “If I Loved You,” “Mister Snow,” “A Real Nice Clambake” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” among the glories — the musical is one heart-melting moment after another.
Rather than seeking to instruct us — as she has sometimes attempted over the years in her ambitious rummagings in the attic of American musical theater history — Smith lets this musical cast its remarkable spell without added commentary. It’s her sharpest work since the terrific “Oklahoma!” that christened Arena’s residency in the refurbished and renamed Mead Center for American Theater in 2010. As a result, she fulfills one of the most important missions she has staked out for Arena: revealing to us the finery in America’s artistic treasure chest. And she presents it on this occasion in graceful shape, leaving it to us to ponder all of its beauty and all of its blemishes.
For “Carousel” is a major milestone in the evolution of the American musical, in the use of a score to reveal shadings of character; in the experimental shifts in motif to propel narrative; in its demonstration of the form’s potential for exploring adventurous dramatic themes.
These qualities are all in evidence here, courtesy of the mature contributions of Smith and her team: choreographer Parker Esse, music director Paul Sportelli, and set and costume designers Todd Rosenthal and Ilona Somogyi. Rosenthal’s octagon set of whitewashed wood, rendered as a small-town gazebo, elegantly addresses the visual demands of the in-the-round Fichandler Stage. As lighted by Keith Parham, the structure also evokes the carousel run by the demanding Mrs. Mullin (a harshly effective E. Faye Butler). On the gazebo roof sits Sportelli’s 12-member orchestra, as down below the cast of 27 executes Esse’s exemplary dances, with the Act 2 ballet anchored by the gifted Skye Mattox representing a high point.
The rest of the well-chosen cast embodies with appealing freshness the musical’s gallery of salt-of-the-earth characters. Kate Rockwell, for example, gives as splendid an account of Julie’s best friend Carrie Pipperidge as you are ever likely to encounter. Her upbeat delivery of “Mister Snow” lays fine groundwork for Carrie’s own subplot, concerning her marriage to a more upstanding and less threatening control freak, Enoch Snow. He’s portrayed subtly here by Kurt Boehm, who manages the uncanny trick of making Enoch seem both tender and highhanded.
The other featured performers — Kyle Schliefer, as a sly highwayman; Thomas Adrian Simpson as the town’s mill owner; and Arvia as Nettie Fowler, supplying a reliable older shoulder on which Julie can lean — are bulwarks of an excellent ensemble. But the supple contributions here of Morgan and especially Rodriguez provide the core of this “Carousel” with its sense of epic weight. When this big-voiced Billy Bigelow steps out for the “Soliloquy” that hints at the better man he might become, the epiphany indeed feels like ecstatic transformation.
For the rest of us, experiencing a bit of catharsis right this minute doesn’t hurt, either. The music of “Carousel,” in fact, hits our ears as a thoroughgoing consolation. It’s good at times of crisis to be reminded of the power stored in our shared artistic heritage, forever capable of renewal.
Carousel, music by Richard Rodgers, music and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Molly Smith. Choreography, Parker Esse; music direction, Paul Sportelli; set, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Ilona Somogyi; lighting, Keith Parham; sound, Joshua Horvath, Ray Nardelli; wigs, Anne Nesmith; fight choreography, David Leong; dialects, Lynn Watson. With Jacob Beasley, Stephawn Stephens, Nicole Wildy, Joshua Otten. About 2 hours, 45 minutes. Tickets: $64-$127. Through Dec. 24 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.