BWW Reviews: How a High School Production of CAROUSEL Changed My Way Of Thinking About Musical Theater
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by Jeffrey Ellis
If you asked me on the morning of April 19 what my all-time favorite musicals are, I would have answered swiftly, in this specific order: Gypsy, She Loves Me and Carousel. That has been the batting order in my mind for just about as long as I can remember. However, if you asked me today, April 20, I'd probably offer up a different order of importance because, thanks to a sumptuously mounted and beautifully performed production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel at Nashville's Christ Presbyterian Academy, I've had to rethink my list of favorites.
Yes, you read that right: Thanks to the efforts of a cast of high school students under the direction of their artistic mentor Paula Y. Flautt (who's the fine arts director at CPA), I have to admit that Carousel is my favorite musical. It's always been my favorite among all the musical masterpieces created by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, but I found myself so completely moved, so thoroughly enchanted by the production in CPA's Events Center (where it continues through Saturday evening)-which boasts stellar production values, an amazing live orchestra and a production design that rivals some of the best professional mountings we've seen in Nashville-that Carousel has supplanted Gypsy on my list of all-time favorites.
And while I'm making new confessions, I should add that in the 30-some years that I've been reviewing theater (I'm actually one of those people who wanted to be a theater critic even as a teenager), I can count on one hand the number of high school productions I've seen and I've resolutely proclaimed that as a way of avoiding getting roped into seeing countless productions of the usual shows you'd expect to see on the stages of secondary schools across the U.S.
But here in Nashville, it should be noted, high school musical theater is something else altogether. In addition to Flautt's renowned theater program at CPA, the area also boasts Daron Bruce and Hume-Fogg Academic High School's acclaimed theater (Les Miserables and The Wizard of Oz are among the most recent offerings), Battle Ground Academy's theater program headed by Jenny Wallace Noel (where Guys and Dolls currently runs), Catherine Coke's work at University School of Nashville (which includes the first production of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson since the show closed on Broadway) and Brenda Gregory's productions for Murfreesboro's Siegel High School (where Evita is playing this weekend). In other words, high school theater, particularly musical theater, is serious business in Music City USA, as could probably be expected since everyone, it seems, is a burgeoning triple threat-keep your eyes on that second grader to become Broadway's next Kristin Chenoweth, that fifth grader with stage presence whose eyes are locked on Brian D'Arcy James' roles, or the girl knocking on Sutton Foster's dressing room door.
Doubt me? Then go see Carousel, directed with style and panache by Flautt who invests in her youthful cast all that she knows about musical theater and her abiding love and affection for Carousel (in the program, she notes that the role of Louise Bigelow was her first musical theatre performance) and her time-honored respect for the work created by one of musical theater's most legendary teams. Perhaps more importantly she has entrusted her young actors with the challenges provided by the time-honored script, the serious overtones of the plot dealt with in thoughtful-and thought-provoking-ways and brought to life with a sense of purpose and generous helpings of heart.
Flautt and company shirk none of the responsibilities engendered by producing Carousel, instead they embrace them, breathing new and vigorous life into the musical that opened on Broadway in 1945 (67 years to the day it was presented at CPA-talk about the stars being in alignment for this one!). In fact, Carousel may never have seemed so lively as it does here, the youthful exuberance and bonhomie expressed throughout the show only adding to the emotional impact of the storyline and ensuring that "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and "A Real Nice Clambake" are performed with zealously plotted abandon.
The story remains the same, an innocent young woman-she's a queer one, that Julie Jordan-finds herself held raptly in the thrall of a handsome, charismatic carousel barker named Billy Bigelow in a bustling mill town on the Maine coast. As the fates would have it, the two marry after what might best be described as a whirlwind courtship, only to find themselves poor and almost destitute, forced to live with a relation to eke out a meager living.
Julie is completely enamored and in love with Billy, although each is loath to tell the other of their true feelings, and in the way of all tragic romances, horrific events unfold that cause even further suffering and deprivation. Yet somehow hope remains alive-for Julie, for Billy and for their daughter Louise-in the wake of tragedy, there is the promise of a better life, a more exhilarating existence that can only be dreamed of and longed for and which remains just out of reach until one of the most moving and heartfelt moments in musical theater history.
Not that I want to give anything away about the plot (for the twelve people who may not be familiar with Carousel or with Molnar's Liliom, the source material for the musical), but I must pose the rhetorical question: Has there ever been a more heartrending moment than when Billy hovers near his daughter's ear at her high school graduation and urges her to listen to the words and the true meaning of "You'll Never Walk Alone," the anthemic ballad that is perhaps the score's best-known composition? It remains one of the singly most powerful moments in musical theater that I can remember and when Billy crosses the stage to tell Julie he has always loved her…well, suffice it to say, my eyes are filled with tears, my heart full at the memory of the performances of Patrick Eytchison, Meg Perdue and Mary Peyton Hodges on the CPA stage.
That a high school production can be so awesome in the sheer transformative power of live theater astonishes me, leaving me at once breathless and innervated by the sheer wealth of promise on display on that expansive stage. Flautt's exceptionally talented ensemble of student actors show such commitment, an alarmingly high display of confidence, and embody such stage presence that you cannot help but be caught up, as was I, by their amazing gift of storytelling and their somehow reverent, yet enormously fresh, approach to the show that has been around since even before some of their grandparents were born.
Taking on the challenge of playing Billy Bigelow, the archetypal anti-hero, senior Patrick Eytchison (who is headed for a one of the nation's military academies after graduation) displays a range and an understanding of his character that belies his youth. He effectively becomes Billy while onstage, playing him with a mix of bravado and self-doubt that is palpable, thus allowing audiences to better identify with the man who is, for all intents and purposes, a wife-beating lout and layabout. Thanks to Eytchison, who performs "Soliloquy" with surprising depth, the audience is given added insight into what makes Billy "Billy," the charming cad whose brashness masks his lack of confidence and self-awareness.
Eytchison is ideally paired with Meg Perdue, who plays Julie with an open heart and sweetly conveyed demeanor. The role of Julie is a difficult one to play: She can come across as a foolish, lovestruck girl or else she can be played as a long-suffering, battered wife who fails to see the truth of her own existence. Perdue melds these two approaches to create a Julie who, with eyes wide open, opts for the life she leads, recognizing her husband's shortcomings, rejecting his harsh and hurtful ways while maintaining a steadfast love and affection for him. Perdue gives a fully realized performance, one that is totally accessible to her audience, thus making Julie's eventual heartbreak all the more compelling and deeply felt. Her duet with Eytchison on "If I Love You" remains one of the musical theater's most exquisitely beautiful songs, the pair's youthfulness lending more promise to the memorable lyrics.
As Carrie Pipperidge, Gabrielle Toledo is wonderfully winsome and completely guileless, showing off her stage presence with style and capturing Carrie's joie de vivre in so doing. She is paired with Cullen Williams, who is convincing as the ambitious, social climbing Enoch Snow, and together the two are delightful.
Lydia Granered, who plays Julie's aunt Nettie Fowler, delivers a strong performance and her rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone" is lovely, and Mary Peyton Hodges takes on the role of Louise with a self-possessed attitude that is refreshing and engaging. Among the huge ensemble of supporting players, among the outstanding players are Jim Clarke (as The Starkeeper/Dr. Seldon), Buck Wise (as Jigger Craigin) and Nathan Thomas (as Enoch Snow Jr.). Abby Newman, who plays Mrs. Mullins, the carousel's owner who vies with Julie for Billy's affections, gives a startlingly adroit performance-you can easily forget she is in high school thanks to her fully-realized portrayal.
The 13-member orchestra that accompanies the performance is outstanding, featuring some of Nashville's best known pit musicians, including pianist Nathan Burbank, who is a musical theater regular. Lesa Roman's choreography is fun and sprightly, moving the large cast about the expansive stage with confidence-and never for a moment does it seem like she's trying to accommodate everyone with simple, easy-to-learn steps. Instead, the choreography serves its purpose-and serves it quite well, thank you very much.
Flautt handles the production design (with Shane Caudill sharing set design credit with her, while gracefully and beautifully handling the task of lighting the production) with admirable results…the pastel hues of the set recall a seaside retreat that helps to mitigate the play's tragic events. Flautt's costume design, which continue the same color schemes, clothe her actors in the perfect period clothes called for in the script.
If it sounds as if I've gone completely over-the-top in my praise for CPA's Carousel, then you should find a way-by hook or by crook-to see the show for yourself. It really is a wonderful evocation of a beloved musical, one that Time magazine proclaimed the best of the 20th century in 1999, and one that I've only just now elevated to number one in my estimation. Both Carousel, and CPA's production of it, are wondrous examples of the power of live theater.
- Carousel. Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Paula Y. Flautt. Choreographed by Lesa Roman. Presented by the Christ Presbyterian Academy Fine Arts Department, Nashville. Through April 21. For details, go to www.cpalions.org or call (615) 373-9550.