Although Richard Rodgers and Ocsar Hammerstein II had great success with other partners (Lorenz Hart and Jerome Kern respectively), when they joined forces on 1940’s ground-breaking Oklahoma!, they would write a new Broadway musical. Prior to it, nobody had written a show which truly reflected American life. With Carousel (1945), they would present a tale of small town life about and for the ordinary American. In adapting the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom (1909) to a seaside town on the east coast with its fairground, clambakes and idiomatic accents, Hammerstein’s characters and their sentiments and actions present not only a flawed hero in the central character Billy Bigelow but the many examples of the then average American. Yet it is a tale of hope not only appropriate to a population coming out of World War II but still remains very relevant to the current political situation in Canberra. Bigelow, who is offered the best things in life instead chooses gambling, chauvinism and assault, leading to his suicide. Even though he is given a second chance he cannot revert from his old ways.
Ben Mingay as Billy Bigelow. Photograph © Soda Street Productions
In these troubled times, Carousel is a tale of hope despite many disadvantages and this semi-staged production, directed by SOSA Artistic Director Stuart Maunder, is an ideal salve which extends beyond the usual strictures of staged opera. It features a luxurious cast, with the highly talented conductor (Brett Weymark) just as much at home on Broadway as he was with Sir Michael Tippett’s giant oratorio A Child of Our Time just a week or so ago. Though acted by the cast, who are nicely costumed by Tracey Richardson, there is no scenery and choreography. The chorus is an admirable group with the finest of diction, finesse and power whether they are singing in toto or broken down into male and female choruses according to the show’s demands. Much of this is thanks to the gifted chorus master for the company, Anthony Hunt, who has had much wide-ranging experience.
The idea of casting musical theatre specialist Ben Mingay as Bigelow is an inspired one for not only is he a finely gifted singing actor, he commands the audience’s attention with a wide ranging (bass) baritone of many hues and has mountains of stage presence. He is perhaps at his finest in the early ‘bench scene’ incorporating the gorgeous If I Loved You, partnered here by the delightful lyric soprano Desiree Frahn as his love interest Julie Jordan in the most involving of performances. Mind you, his Soliloquy on his dreams for his expected child was equally strong, changing from the rollicking and brusquely masculine to doting and tender in his hopes for a boy or a girl. Throughout, the spoken dialogue flowed, leading onto these often oh-so-well-known songs and generally the accents, both sung and spoken, were excellent throughout the drama.
Dimity Shepherd as Nettie Fowler with the cast of Carousel. Photograph © Soda Street Productions
As previously mentioned, here was a well-chosen cast wherein each character was brought to life with the utmost conviction and identification. Catherine Campbell as the fairground owner and former lover Mrs Mullin brought a maturity and swagger to the role, sparked no doubt by personal jealousy, which belied her years, while the other ‘baddie’, Billy’s co-gambler and conspirator Jigger (Nicholas Cannon) was a nasty bundle of believable cunning and trickery. The show’s contrasting couple, Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow, were played by two of our finest character singers, Johanna Allen and Benjamin Rashid.
With such a fine cast and fine direction, this semi-staged production showed why Carousel was initially such a groundbreaking show. Hammerstein had brought something new and unique to musical theatre with his unparalleled use of the American vernacular, and the seamless movement from speech to song remains effortless. After all these years, with such a gifted cast such as this one, the show can still remain both affecting and refreshing. Carousel would prove to be the way to the future for it was also at this time that the young Stephen Sondheim was taken under the nurturing wing of Hammerstein. And of course Hammerstein’s protégé Sondheim and this production’s Bigelow, Ben Mingay, will be brought together by State Opera South Australia in May for the macabre but highly enjoyable romp that is Sweeney Todd.