Carousel Soars at Midland Center for the Arts

March 8, 2020

In 1943, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein revolutionized musical theatre with Oklahoma! a musical theatre piece that relied less on spectacle, broad comedy and big dance numbers, and more on a realistic script full of complex characters and darker subject matter. The musical was the Hamilton of its time, and they followed it up in 1945 with Carousel, an equally raw story about men, women and the messiness of their lives and their legacy. 

Photo by Jenny Bagnall

Midland Center for the Arts was smart to frame their concert staging of Carousel, not as a love story, but as a musical about a flawed man, Billy Bigelow, and his broken and sometimes violent relationship with his wife, Julie Jordan. Choral director and producer Dr. Matt Travis’ pre-curtain speech and director Dexter Brigham’s program notes, combined with a talk-back attended by Janine Ouderkirk of Shelterhouse, helped to open a dialogue around a show that is so potentially difficult, that is frequently avoided in community theatre programming.  

 

Center Stage Theatre and Choirs collaborated with the Midland Symphony Orchestra as well as Broadway vocalists Derrick Davis, Erica Spyres, and Katie Travis on this daunting task, resulting in a musical production that can only be described as magnificently lush. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original musical creation was on display, complete with a whopping fifty-piece orchestra, an attribute that no Broadway house can fathom in this day and age (the 2018 Broadway revival of Carousel had a 28-piece pit.) The musicians were in full view and beautifully conducted by Richard Carsey, whose credits include the previously mentioned 2018 revival. 

 

Derrick Davis lead the cast as the troubled Billy Bigelow, with a powerhouse vocal that was matched by his emotional and specific physicality. He brought an honesty to Billy’s struggle that garnered empathy from the audience and made Billy a human who was capable of terrible things instead of a monster. 

Photo by Jenny Bagnall

Likewise, Katie Travis portrayed Julie Jordan as a strong woman for whom life has not been easy. She sees Billy’s best and worst traits and stands by her choice to love him and to stay with him even after he hits her. She’s a survivor and her decisions have never been made from fear. Vocally, Travis’ crystal-clear soprano was a highlight of the evening. 

 

In perhaps the most charming performance of the evening, Erica Spyres delivers as Carrie Pipperidge. She is both comedic relief and concerned friend, and Spyres’ vocals float so effortlessly between lyric soprano and hearty mezzo, that it doesn’t even look like she’s trying. 

 

The remainder of the cast was vocally strong, especially Erin Whitfield as Nettie, and John Cormier-Burke as Enoch Snow. In addition to the featured cast, the Chorale filled in the chorus numbers with soaring voices and small bits of choreography by Rita Gnida which never detracted from the main action. 

Photo by Jenny Bagnall

As a staged concert, the more minimal choreography, set design by Evan Lewis, lighting by Eric Sweers, and costumes by Sammy Mainzer served the story and the use of a narrator to move the story from setting to setting was a wise choice. Sometimes, the lack of fully-realized technical elements and scenic pieces caused some of the more complicated moments to get lost in the action. More deliberate focus during these moments would have been helpful to the occasional audience member who was not already familiar with the show before walking into the theatre. 

 

With well over one hundred people on stage at any given moment, Carousel at Midland Center for the Arts was no small undertaking, but the collaboration of professional musicians and community performers seems to have brought out the best of all those involved. We hope the project opened the door for many concerts to come. 

 

Carousel has one final performance on Sunday, March 8 at 3pm. For more information, visit www.midlandcenter.org 

 

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