June is bustin’ out all over (two Carousels spin onto the stage this month)

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, Foote in the Door Productions. Photo by Nanc Price.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

It was never an easy musical — to cast, to act, to sing, to dance, to stage. And its dauntingly dark source, a 1909 play by the Hungarian Ferenc Molnár (Liliom), wasn’t exactly a natural for the chin-up American musical theatre form in 1945. And Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves recognized it at the time.

After all, the hero of Carousel, carnival barker Billy Bigelow, has a violent streak: the boy who meets girl, in that classic romantic scenario, beats his wife, commits suicide during an armed robbery gone wrong, and gets his crack at redemption from beyond the grave. 

With its lustrous and memorable score (If I Loved You) and powerful dramatic arc, Carousel, though, became Rodgers’s favourite collaboration with Hammerstein, by all reports. And this month, Edmonton audiences have not one but two productions to choose from. Yes, indeed, “June is bustin’ out all over,” as the Act I ensemble number has it.

The first of them opens Friday at La Cité francophone, in a production by the enterprising collective Foote in the Door Productions (founded by performers who met at the Citadel’s Foote Theatre School in 2013). The second comes to the Festival Place stage in Sherwood Park June 24, as part of the Opera Nuova’s annual festival of opera and musical theatre.

Foote in the Door director Mary-Ellen Perley has an unusually personal connection with Carousel. It happened to her 12-year-old self, growing up in Sudbury, and remains indelible. “My dad had just died; I was very worried about my mom,” she says of her “brush with You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a climactic song that has entered the repertoire as an anthem of hope after loss.

“The music was a godsend. My mom was a very good pianist…. I went out to a (sheet music) store, looked at the words, and bought her the music. Then I left it on the piano and went off to school. And I hoped that when I got home she’d be at the piano playing it, and not crying….” That’s exactly what happened.

The Stratford production of Carousel of a couple of seasons ago left Perley shattered. “I saw it and was blown away!” she says. When the chance to direct the Foote in the Door production came up, “I approached with a little trepidation: would I ever be able to get through rehearsal without losing it?”

“The story is powerful, the music is very beautiful, the ballet sequences are astonishing…. It’s a big show, and for me a huge learning curve, on so many levels.” She says, “I’ve very very proud of the (21-member) company and the way they’ve e really come together!”  

Set in a late 19th century New England fishing town, Carousel was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s gutsy follow-up to the massive success of their 1943 debut collaboration Oklahoma! which, as Perley points out, “changed the face of the American musical theatre.”

Created during the dying years of World War II, Carousel was in every way a risk for the America’s soon-to-be-premier musical-writing team. And it still seems vividly modern in its exploration of domestic abuse, in the way it expands our notion of what kinds of stories the musical theatre can tell.

“It’s a tragedy,” says Perley, “but there’s hope in the final scenes” where Billy, “a man given to anger and acts of violence,” is allowed to come back to earth, with a chance to do something fine, something redeeming.

Pearly has changed the original setting from the 1880s to 1917 and 1932. “In 1917 the U.S. was just entering the war … and 1932, the Depression, was a tough time to be alive.” says Perley. Both Billy and Julie Jordan, the millworker who finds herself fatally attracted to him, “are misfits in their time.”

People still labouring under the dismissive misapprehension that musical theatre is the lightweight end of the theatrical spectrum, are in for a surprise with this 72-year-old musical, she says. “It’s a tough show. A show about people struggling to make the best of their lives.”

“So, two times of harsh reality, yes, but there’s also a magical element: the world of the real and the world of the imagination!” She advises us, mysteriously, to watch the opening montage attentively. “Then you’ll have an Aha! moment later!”

The Foote in the Door Carousel, directed by Mary-Ellen Perley and choreographed by Ainsley Hillyard and musical direction by Stuart Sladden, runs Friday through June 24 at La Cité francophone, 8627 91 St. It’s produced in partnership with WIN House. Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca).

The Opera Nuova Carousel, directed by Donna Fletcher, runs at Sherwood Park’s Festival Place, 100 Festival Way, June 24 to 30. Tickets: operanuova.ca or festivalplace.ab.ca.

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