Let's See If He Can Topple Three Milk Bottles with a Ping-Pong Ball

Cozying up to America's favorite carny

The venerable trade of carnival carousel operator has pretty much gone the way of the pager repairman, its practitioners replaced by cheerful teens who need only know how to cue up a Raffi CD. (I hate to sound snarky, but my ego hasn't been the same since I was tossed from Carny College for refusing to fool around with my half-sister at Moonshine-Making Lab.) But in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, Billy Bigelow (Bradley Greenwald) pretty much has it made. He runs the glittering ride, and he cuts an enthusiastic swath through the young female population of the seaside village where he works. Then he meets Julie Jordan (Jennifer Baldwin Peden), and fate takes a detour.

Nautilus Music-Theater's staging of the iconic musical sticks to the spirit of their regular Rough Cuts series, in which they present musical works with scant adornment. Put another way, there's no set to speak of: In the opening number, the performers move in a circle, bouncing up and down to mimic their invisible horses. I am inevitably reminded of the television commercial currently playing in which a pathetic fellow rides an invisible road bike while his reality-based pals look on bemused.

In a similarly spare mood, two Steinway pianos (tinkled by Jerry Rubino and Mindy Eschedor) stand in for Richard Rodgers's full score. The bare effect is to place a purist's emphasis on the tunes (which are famously stellar: wry and knowing when they need to be, jocular and jaunty when called for) and the quality of the vocal and acting performances.

I got all ten fingers and at least seven toes. What more could a girlie want in a carny?
Eric Melzer
I got all ten fingers and at least seven toes. What more could a girlie want in a carny?

By and large, these range from very good to excellent. Greenwald in the early going gives us Billy as self-regarding roustabout, looking down his nose with a heavy-lidded smile at the world. Baldwin Peden endows her young cotton-mill worker with an appropriate blend of earthiness and yearning. The pair's shoreline walk in "If I Loved You" proves to be a complicated blend of two personalities made cautious by the rougher aspects of life.

Class consciousness runs through Oscar Hammerstein II's book and lyrics. Billy and Julie marry, and Billy proceeds to become a drunken, surly layabout. Faring much better is Julie's friend Carrie (Jill Anna Ponasik, here an elfin beauty with a whiplash temper). She becomes engaged to dullard Enoch (Joel Liestman), a fisherman with a fledgling capitalist's dream of ever-bigger nets, bigger catches, bigger boats. Hammerstein thumbs the scale heavily to suggest which approach he prefers.

It's Billy, of course, who rises to a moment of authentic bliss. In one critical scene, we watch Greenwald run the gamut of emotions: He sneers as his wife brings him a cup of coffee, then explodes with boyish dismay when he misinterprets a line about her health. When she then informs him she's pregnant, he beams with primal glee and launches into song.

Ultimately, though, Billy is not fated to attend Lamaze classes. Instead, he gets drawn into a robbery/murder scheme to make a score for his unborn child, and dies in the process. He lands in heaven's antechamber, where he indulges in a little kleptomania and then learns that he can redeem his soul by returning to earth and doing something, anything, worthwhile. (You have to love Hammerstein's take on afterlife redemption, which is as permissive as a Pride parade).

In a scene that faintly recalls any number of Jerry Springer shows, Billy returns to earth and sees his teenaged daughter Louise (Claire Westby) saddled with his legacy of low-class behavior. The better-heeled boys in town lust after her and shun her in turn. Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan's choreography is at its best in this sequence, full of youth and athleticism. Finally, at Louise's high school graduation, Billy intercedes (fallen) angelically and compels his daughter to listen to the commencement speech, which consists of bromides about not being dragged down by our parents' failures or borne up by their successes. (You could write a doctoral thesis about this scene; you could also crib a graduation speech from it). Greenwald, with lovely gestures, shows the simple redemption of a soul rough-hewn and small, always hedged in from all sides.

This unornamented show eloquently gets to the heart of the play: It is the incidental goodness and fleeting moments of understanding that are our best shot at finding what shines on the fleeting carousel we ride. Some theatergoers might feel shortchanged (no carousel! no orchestra!), but I was left moved by the paradoxical hopefulness of such homely optimism.

 
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