A Real Nice Clambake
With a little luck and money, one can fill a musical with folks who can sing, act, dance, and who knows, maybe even throw a happening cast party (the elusive quadruple threat). When that's not an option, the common solution seems to be to lard the cast with good singers, and pray that any dramatic shortcomings will get lost in the nimbus of a shimmering high C. For its production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, Ten Thousand Things has generally used the opposite approach. With the chief exception of Ruth MacKenzie, an excellent actor with a gorgeous and powerful voice, the players lean toward the good-actor-limited-singer variety. As a result, the show stumbles musically, yet coaxes relevance out of what would seem to be a spent book.
Musical director Peter Vitale has guided the singers to play to their strengths. Save for the climax of the "Soliloquy" of Billy Bigelow (Terry Hempleman)--performed on Broadway and on film by such Beluga-lunged singers as John Raitt and Gordon MacRae--there's little straining here. Rather, what we get is honest imperfection and once-more-with-feeling soul. The show's famous courtship ballad, "If I Loved You," is delivered by shower-singer Hempleman and soft-voiced Carolyn Goelzer (as Julie Jordan, Bigelow's soon-to-be wife) with a mistiness that hits every romantic nerve if not every note. That sort of tenderness can't redeem every patch of shaky pitch, though, and when MacKenzie belts out "June Is Busting Out All Over" or "You'll Never Walk Alone," one is reminded of how much more these songs can be.
If you're familiar with Carousel (the movie was a heavily altered rendition of the stage musical, itself adapted from Ferenc Molnár's Liliom), you'll recall its dicey treatment of domestic violence, which suggests that for some good-on-the-inside brutes, battering is an awkward expression of love. Bigelow is a macho carnival barker and a self-acknowledged good-for-nothing bum. After getting axed from his carousel job, he capriciously marries Jordan, but the marriage is doomed from the start. Billy remains comfortably unemployed, beats his new bride, and kills himself after a botched robbery. When things get rough for his daughter Louise (born after his death), Billy is vouchsafed a day of R&R from the afterlife to help the kid out, but louses that up in typically bullying fashion. In the film, Louise asks her mother if it's possible for "someone to hit you and for it not to hurt a bit." Yes indeedy! assures the meek widow in the original's most unintentionally chilling line. Here the question is answered only with a pained look.
Goelzer's performance is the show's most emotionally gripping, but a couple of supporting players nearly steal the show. Sarah Agnew gives Julie's best friend Carrie a totally over-the-top reading, full of throaty self-assurance and hoydenish glee. As such, it runs a bit counter to director Michelle Hensley's downbeat interpretation, but it's damn funny nonetheless. Matt Guidry is winningly sleazy as Billy's prison buddy Jigger. He and Hempleman share a penchant for loose-cannon defensiveness, colorful put-downs, and class-consciousness. Their threatening insolence conspires with Goelzer's toughness to give things a mood far grittier than a show featuring a song called "That Was a Real Nice Clambake" has any right to be.
In Rose, remounted by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company after a successful 2002 run, Randy Latimer gives a technically impressive performance of Martin Sherman's two-hour-plus monologue. Yet it might not be worth the emotional or mnemonic effort. Rose, who got rich as an American hotelier, tells us her life story while sitting shiva for a slain Palestinian girl. In 80 years, she has had some remarkable run-ins with history: pogroms in her native Ukraine; the Warsaw ghetto under Hitler; a tense trip aboard the Exodus 1947 that sought to sail refugees to Palestine; even dope-smoking on a hippie commune. Latimer is engaging, with detailed facial expressions and meaningful pauses; the early memories are especially moving.
But as the play progresses, Rose moves from character to symbol--Forrest Gump, only Jewish, elderly, and mentally able--and our raconteur plasticizes. Bawdy, wise, and tirelessly politically correct, she's one hip grandma, but lovable to a fault. Her flaws feel like attributes (too passionate? too open-minded? too potty-mouthed?), and her strength grows less inspiring than ingratiating.
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