The greatest of musicals? HHS’s production makes a convincing case
The luxury of hearing the Homestead High School Pit orchestra play Richard Rodgers’s score is beautiful. Does any mainstream piece of musical theatre sound this sophisticated – those flecks of strings, the stopped horns, the chilly bitonal winds heard just before the Carousel Waltz lurches into motion? Carousel is a fairly close adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom. Puccini had previously wanted to turn the script into an opera. But Molnár refused to give his permission, happily leaving Rogers and Hammerstein free to finally acquire the rights in 1943.
As a piece of mainstream entertainment, this is not a comforting experience. Carousel is a deeper, darker work, and this is a sombre production at times – The lighting is appropriately subdued and the inventive, versatile set designs can feel claustrophobic, hemmed in. The crowd scenes are a joy to watch. Nobody just stands and sings – each character, no matter how minor, appears fully formed and vivid. William Toney’s Billy Bigelow, the feckless fairground barker whose tortured redemption gives the piece such clout, is an impressive reading – he really can convey the character’s instability. His restlessness and despair stem from his own harsh upbringing. His entries in Act 1 often send a chill wind through the proceedings. We know that he’ll be redeemed, but watching his descent is still painful. Toney is magnetic – the voice is ripe, rich, and he can act! You despise him, but want him to atone. Grace Bobber’s Julie is an effective foil, a woman so ground down by her meaningless job in a cotton mill that she’ll grasp at any chance to escape, prepared to marry someone she knows is a bad choice.
Supporting roles are consistently well cast. Jonathan Bartlett and Maggie Collins offer welcome light relief as Carrie and Enoch, and Joseph Schwalb’s Jigger exudes sly menace. You forgive the odd bit of flatly delivered dialogue, or the rather perfunctory way in which Bigelow meets his death, for the electrifying final scenes. The moment when the identity of Alexis Thompson and Mari Duckler’s Heavenly Friends are revealed sends shivers down the spine, nicely preceded by Bridget Cushman and Grace Bobber’s hesitant, moving rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Luke Elowsky’s Starkeeper, dressed in a cream suit, suggests a 1930s Hollywood mogul. As we watch Billy watching his daughter from above, we can’t help be moved with her pain. Haley Wittchow as Julie and Billy’s daughter, Louise, has us stunned in her fourteen minute ballet filled with emotions and admirable dancing.
And as we’re exhorted to stand on our own two feet, to go out and give life its best shot, only the hardest of hearts could fail to be moved. Rebecca Winnie’s well-drilled chorus adds to the pleasure; this is a deeply satisfying evening.