Review: Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Carousel ·
Regal Theatre, 16 June ·
Review by Leon Levy ·
In 1909 Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár’s play Liliom was withdrawn after a short run in Budapest. In 1943 Rogers and Hammerstein, in their first collaboration, wrote the musical Oklahoma! to unprecedented acclaim. Such is some of the unlikely background to the composition of Carousel: on the one hand a seemingly-failed Hungarian play with its uncongenial social and political background and gloomy storyline, and the refusal of the playwright to allow even Puccini to set it for the operatic stage; and, on the other hand, the unlikelihood that the American partnership of composer and lyricist could possibly find in this joyless play a successor to the widely acclaimed Oklahoma!. Indeed, Samuel Goldwyn advised that Rogers simply shoot himself in order to avoid the inevitable humiliating failure.
But fate took an altogether unexpected course: after World War I, Liliom was successfully remounted in Budapest and later New York. Then in 1943, searching for material for a follow-up to Oklahoma!, Liliom was suggested to a sceptical Rogers and Hammerstein. Meantime Molnár had moved to the US and was so taken with their sympathetic adaptation of the play Green Grow the Lilacs into Oklahoma! that he capitulated, attended Carousel rehearsals enthusiastically and permitted certain modifications to avoid a totally bleak ending.
In this production of Carousel – performed by WAAPA’s second and third year musical theatre students accompanied by the WAAPA orchestra under David King – Sydney-based director John Langley has most effectively repositioned the action in the Vietnam War era and thus side-stepped any unhelpful cutesiness. Even the prologue, with its carnival scene and “The Carousel Waltz”, suggests the joylessness that is to follow and that makes for a satisfyingly consistent prevailing atmosphere.
The main protagonists appear without delay: the loving and trusting Julie Jordan (Amy Fortnum), flattered by the attentions of handsome barker Billy Bigelow (Andrew Coshan), friend Carrie Pipperidge (Jessica Clancy) and jealous carousel owner, the widow Mrs Mullin (Stacey Tomsett) immediately establish themselves, as does the electricity between Julie and Billy. Confident anticipation (Carrie’s “When I Marry Mr Snow”) and uncertainty (Julie’s “If I Loved You”) are beautifully projected by Clancy and Fortnum respectively, and confirm the integration of the vocal and dramatic qualities that reflect and advance the drama throughout the evening. Coshan’s rendition of Billy’s “Soliloquy” on learning that he is to become a father, is another one of many fine moments. As Enoch Snow, Kurt Russo is all moral certainty combined with 1950’s country-boy naivety, making a satisfying contrast to the more conflicted folk around him: later this re-emerges most deliciously when he chances upon his wife describing what was effectively a drag-show that they had, in innocence, attended in New York.
The rare carefree scenes that end Act I and begin Act II (the ensemble in cracking form in “This Was a Real Nice Clambake”) lead to Billy’s descent into disaster, led by the cynical low life, Jigger (Todd Peydo). Act II is marked by tragedy and by Molnár’s potentially unconvincing device of having Billy observe his now teenaged daughter Louise (Alexandra Cornish) from his detention in a heavenly police court and during a brief earthly return. This must have been an unsympathetic development for both composer and lyricist and, indeed, poses a challenge for cast and audience in 2018. But the WAAPA team bring dramatic strength to these moments, with “You’ll Never Walk Alone” – sung by Elise Muley as Nettie, Julie’s protector – consolidating the prospects for a more hopeful future for Louise.
Working from the narrow confines of the Regal stage, Jason Langley and his large team – cast, choreographer, lighting, set, costume and sound designers, musical director and orchestra – bring this challenging work to vivid life. This is a compelling production in which the spectre of domestic violence is ever-present and where there are all-too-few moments of unalloyed happiness. But it will, without doubt, come to be seen as one of the theatrical highlights of 2018.
Pictured top: Alexandra Cornish as Louise Bigelow. Photo: Jon Green.