Unlike a carousel, which revolves repeatedly in place, one of the messages of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1945 musical, Carousel, is that what goes around doesn't necessarily have to come around. Bad patterns can be broken.
This gratifying realization is one of several rewarding aspects of Olney Theatre Center's lilting but thoughtful, solid production.
Over the years, the musicals of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II have gained an undeserved reputation for sugariness. The 1956 Shirley Jones-Gordon MacRae movie version of Carousel helped reinforce this reputation.
Then in 1992, Britain's Royal National Theatre mounted a revival that restored the crucial layer of darkness and menace underlying Hammerstein's adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's Liliom -- a play about the troubled marriage of a low-life carnival barker and an innocent small-town girl. Two years later, the British revival crossed the Atlantic and won the Tony Award on Broadway, reassuring fans of Rodgers' favorite musical that, far from mere sweetness and light, the show is a serious-minded, sophisticated work.
At Olney, more than any individual performance, it is an overall sense of the show's similarity to Thornton Wilder's Our Town that indicates that director Brad Watkins has honored the gravity of Carousel's themes. Also set in New England, Carousel, like Our Town, runs the emotional gamut from the joy of young love to the harsh reality of young death. Similarly, both shows allow the deceased to travel back to earth for a day and examine the impact their life had on those around them.
In Carousel, however, the deceased -- barker Billy Bigelow -- has had a decidedly deleterious impact. The legacy of his abusive marriage to Julie Jordan and his criminal past is that his daughter has become a shunned and angry teenager. And though Caesar Samayoa never completely captures Billy's requisite combination of danger and romantic allure, he has enough of an outsider's edgy appeal to suggest the attraction that Erin Davie's sweet Julie feels for him.
When Davie sings "What's the Use of Wond'rin' (If he's good or if he's bad)," it's clear that, even if she knew a way out of her marriage, she wouldn't take it. In these more enlightened times, it feels like a blow just to hear Julie tell her daughter (Jenn Segawa), "It is possible for someone to hit you and have it not hurt at all." Yet this production offers a modicum of hope that Julie's spirited daughter will have the courage to, as another lyric puts it, "walk through a storm/keep [her] chin up high," and break the pattern of abuse.
If that's a revisionist interpretation, it's nonetheless ground- ed in Olney's production. Not only do we appreciate the severity of the material (Jeffries Thaiss' portrayal of Billy's sleazy cohort, Jigger, is the show's strongest male performance), but we also meet more than one independent-thinking woman with backbone.
These stalwart female characters receive some of the production's best depictions -- Monica Lijewski as Julie's warm-hearted cousin Nettie (who introduces "You'll Never Walk Alone"); Tracy Lynn Olivera as Julie's spunky best friend, Carrie; and even Adrienne Athanas as Julie's tough-talking rival, Mrs. Mullin, the carousel owner.
There are also some genuinely lovely moments, several because of Olivera's magnificent delivery of such delightful romantic numbers as "Mr. Snow" and "When the Children Are Asleep."
Ilona Kessell's choreography opens the show with an evocatively staged "Carousel Waltz," in which the actors mimic riding unseen carousel horses. Watkins' direction, however, occasionally suffers from slow transitions and static poses, which keep this Carousel from revolving as fluidly as it might.
Designer Milagros Ponce de Leon's set positions a number of bare carousel poles in the background, no matter what the setting. Matching the tone of the production as a whole, these skeletal-looking poles offer a constant visual reminder not only of the musical's bright start, but also of the carney squalor always lurking nearby.
Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and Dec. 16. Through Dec. 26