Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel is a troublesome musical because of the perception that it romanticizes domestic violence. The production performed in concert at the Midland Center for the Arts transforms this preconception by presenting a narrative that portrays two romantic relationships for exactly what they are - dysfunctional. Director Dexter Brigham emphasizes that this musical is not a love story but “a study of human weakness.” It is not a redemption of Billy Bigelow but a tragic realization of the irredeemable harm that is the result of two broken people clinging to the possibility of something better than what they have ever known to be true.
Carousel is a musical about desperation. If the audience feels empathy for the characters, they can see that these are desperate people who do not have the tools they need to deal with the dire circumstances that they face. Directed by Dexter Brigham and produced by Chorus Master, Dr. Matt Travis, this production starred four professional actors with a supporting cast of actors from our community, choirs of the center, and the Midland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Broadway conductor Richard Carsey. Every single artist contributed to evoking the empathy necessary to bring this musical that many had deemed dated into relevancy.
Photo by Jenny Bagnall
Derrick Davis is brilliant as Billy Bigelow. His voice is rich and powerful. His physicality demonstrates the desperation that Billy feels at every turn. Here is a character whose only empowerment is his physical prowess combined with charisma and Davis shows the audience that these are the only tools Billy has to deal with conflict. So when he is tortured by his own insecurities and fears of inadequacy it is no wonder he resorts to violence. In his portrayal of Billy, Davis causes us to think about why people who have limited resources and even less coping mechanisms will resort to violence upon those they love and themselves. The audience does not excuse Davis’s Billy, but we do understand and even empathize with his tumultuous circumstances.
As Julie Jordan, Katie Travis has the most controversial line in the entire show. “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you — hit you hard — and not hurt at all.” In 2020 Midland, Michigan, this line was met with audible shock. How do we reconcile with a woman who says such a thing in the #MeToo era? Well, we do so by listening to the advice that Janine Ouderkirk of the Shelterhouse gave during the talk back about the actual victims of domestic violence that her program supports. You don’t judge them. You meet them where they are. Travis’s performance allows us to meet Jordan where she is.
Photo by Jenny Bagnall
The second relationship that Carousel presents is less obviously abusive. However, Enoch Snow played by John Cormier-Burke is just as controlling of Carrie Pipperidge played by Erica Spyres. His manipulation is just less evident because it is more ingrained as acceptable in a patriarchal society. Carrie is persuaded by Enoch that she is fortunate to be a part of his dream and that dream includes having nine children. Spyres has a wonderful moment where she makes it clear to the audience that this isn’t her idea of a dream scenario. Later, Enoch doesn’t believe that Carrie is the victim of an unwanted sexual advance and shames her instead. Emotional and verbal abuse is just now starting to be more widely legitimized, yet here it is in a musical from 1945. Cormier-Burke’s Enoch is possibly more detestable that Billy because of his elitism and patronizing treatment of those he sees as lesser, which includes his wife.
The ability for this musical to be relevant in 2020 is a direct result of the collaborative art that the Center is able to bring to fruition. The unique opportunity to perform with the extremely talented professionals is to be treasured. Having talked to many of the local cast, this collaboration has been equitable and amicable. Adoration was reciprocated on all sides. As an audience member I was thrilled to watch as members of our community performed alongside talent found on The Great White Way. Erin Whitfield as Nettie Fowler, Meagan Eager as Mrs. Mullin, and Anthony Lynch as Jigger Craigin, shine as brightly as their professional castmates. This speaks to the mutual respect of all the artists involved and also the hard work of the stand-in actors, Patrick Kemmerling, Kelley Davis, Miranda Ginop, and Anna Doering, who performed the principal roles in rehearsals until the professional cast members were able to join. All involved, professionals, community performers, choirs of the center, and the Midland Symphony Orchestra, demonstrate that theatre is truly a collaborative art.
Carousel is perhaps the perfect kind of musical to produce as an in concert piece. Seeing and hearing a fifty piece orchestra on stage is magical and the staging in the apron is successful in creating a believable world while also enjoying so many musicians and singers interact as part of this world. My favorite aspect is the use of local legend, Leeds Bird as the Narrator, Bascombe, Starkeep, and Doctor Seldon. His performance is lovable and poignant and as brilliant as his orange pants a contribution by Costume Designer, Sammy Mainzer. This production is a unique collaboration where all artists literally share the stage.
Photo by Jenny Bagnall
Finally, I have to mention Evan Lewis’s simple yet essential contribution to the set design. When the Carousel sign lowers, it invites the awe and acceptance that the audience finds in the entire concert. The expectation is set and the performances deliver.
Midland Center for the Arts brings a production that was written in 1945 into a space that persuades the audience to question how we have changed our perceptions of domestic relationships and challenges us to see what changes still need to be made to an overtly patriarchal society that encourages violence and demeans women. I really hope that they have a talk back at Sunday’s performance as they did opening night. If they do, I highly recommend that you stay and participate in it. The passion and clear purpose of the artists are made even more evident.
Your last chance to see this show is today, Sunday, March 8th at 3:00pm.
Tickets are available at midlandcenter.org