The band keeps time with the actors, who swoop in from the wings in fits of song -- jigging, stomping, carousing -- as a strong man flexes in a lemon-colored jumpsuit and a brown bear does handstands in the corner. Brilliant facades flicker, spotlights descend, and a little ballerina swirls across the stage, burlesque dancers at her back.
As always with Rodgers and Hammerstein, the fun is in the spectacle. And though Foothill's version is pretty in parts, the show is at its best only during the raucous song-and-dance numbers, when supporting players swarm the stage and the orchestra revs up its sound. The songs are full-bodied and pitch-perfect; the dances lavish and thrilling, executed with polish, flair and not a little humor. (The sailors' jig was a particular crowd favorite, drawing whoops and applause mid-scene.)
In these grandiose moments and in its comedy, "Carousel" certainly rises to the occasion. It's the more delicate dramatic scenes that get a little messy.
This is in part because the story driving "Carousel" is a strange one. It's demanding in its complexity, peculiar in its subtleties. As the story goes, a young woman from a garment factory (Mary Melnick) falls for a womanizing carousel barker (Carmichael Blankenship), and he for her. They wed. His sweet whispers turn to violence. Her love is unrelenting.
Then she finds herself pregnant. Though things go well at first, the barker becomes disoriented by the weight of fatherhood. Worried and befuddled, he is easily misled, and tragedy ensues: To secure the future of his unborn child, he gets caught up in on a plot to kill a man, but the deal goes sour and he kills himself instead.
His widowed wife teaches their young daughter that such men are worth forgiving, such abuses worth forgetting. Her forgiveness is supposed to be its own kind of redemption.
In the song "What's the Use of Wondr'in'," she sings to the women gathered round: "Something made him the way that he is, whether he's false or true / and something gave him the things that are his, one of those things is you. / So when he wants your kisses, you will give them to the lad. / And anytime he needs you, you'll go running there like mad."
In another scene she tells her dead husband that she knows why he hit her. In yet another, she tells her young daughter that sometimes being hit "doesn't hurt at all."
Such lines no doubt sound different to modern ears than in 1945, when "Carousel" first hit Broadway. Played the right way, maybe, the musical could be a complex moral tale about love and acceptance. Stripped of its subtleties, it can seem bizarre at best, misogynist at worst.
The biggest hitch in this production is one of casting. There isn't a full-blooded chemistry between Blankenship, a broad-shouldered baritone, and Melnick, whose reedy soprano is poorly matched with his overpowering vocals. Their apparent passion is sometimes more confusing than convincing.
Blankenship, as carnival barker Billy Bigelow, is handsome and charismatic. When he sings, his voice fills the room, and he has a certain physical presence that can overwhelm his colleagues. He plays his character impetuous and a little dumb; the emotional tenor of his performance is strong but never varies.
Mary Melnick, as factory girl Julie Jordan, is quite the opposite: thin, mousy and contemplative. She shoots for subtlety while he shoots for gusto.
Both turn in strong performances; it's the contrast that's problematic. Because their love is never believable, her forgiveness is almost unfathomable. The story is supposed to be one of love and redemption, but the mismatch reshapes the message into something more sinister.
But the play is successful in so many other ways. Katie Blodgett and Ruth E. Stein turn in exceptional vocal performances, and Hank Lawson is hilarious and unnerving in the role of Jigger Craigin. Hair, make-up, costume, set design, choreography, sound production -- all are outright spectacular.
"Carousel" is a strange musical, and may not be all that it aspires to. But taken with a grain of salt, it's a bang-up good time.
What: Foothill Music Theatre's production of the musical "Carousel"
Where: Smithwick Theatre at Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills
When: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., through Aug. 19
Cost: Tickets are $24 general, $22 for seniors, $18 for students and $10 for children under 12.
Info: Call 650-949-7360 or go to http://www.foothill.edu/fa/theater/ .
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