One Good Turn

Billy Bigelow, ultimate anti-hero, finds his heart in Lyric Stage's sparkling Carousel

Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. That's Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic "musical play" Carousel. In Lyric Stage's majestic production, directed by Cheryl Denson, the Irving Arts Center's acoustically generous Carpenter Performance Hall fills with waves of waltzes, ballets and ballads played by a full 40-piece orchestra. A dozen violins! Three violas! And nearly 50 singers with voices glistening like seashells in moonlight.

This is no stripped-down concert sing-through of the sprawling, near-operatic 1945 Broadway hit. This is Carousel as it was meant to be, fully choreographed and elaborately costumed for a wide proscenium stage. Nobody does musicals this way anymore. Until Lyric, nobody had done it with the composers' original orchestrations in 60 years. That's a shame. We've grown so accustomed to tinny five-piece combos backing up small ensembles on stages the size of parking spaces, this show comes close to sensory overload.

Carousel is revived less often than Rodgers and Hammerstein's other biggies—Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music—for good reasons. Besides its size and length (three hours and change), it's a tremendous downer. Based on Ferenc Molnar's 19th-century drama Liliom, the story follows a pair of lovers, carnival barker Billy Bigelow and mill worker Julie Jordan (played at Lyric by Christopher Pinnella and Kimberly Whalen), as they engage in a doomed romance laced with violence and ending with suicide.

Carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Christopher Pinnella) and mill worker Julie Jordan (Kimberly Whalen) engage in a doomed romance in Lyric Stage's big and beautiful Carousel.
Carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Christopher Pinnella) and mill worker Julie Jordan (Kimberly Whalen) engage in a doomed romance in Lyric Stage's big and beautiful Carousel.

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Carousel continues through September 16 at Irving Arts Center's Carpenter Performance Hall.

As sunny as Oklahoma! is, with its beautiful mornings and glorious corn, so Carousel, set in a dreary seaside village in Maine in the late 1800s, throbs with gloom. Traveling carnivals are never safe places to find a mate, and Billy is the bad boy extraordinaire. From the moment pretty Julie flirts with him at the carousel ride, their relationship is a rollercoaster of fights and forgiveness.

So much happens in this show. The original version that Lyric's doing isn't the glossy, truncated fable of the 1956 movie starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. This is darker, epic stuff. Even when "June Is Bustin' Out All Over," and the chorus of 30 is celebrating the "real nice clambake," there's an undercurrent of danger every time Billy and his partner in crime, the even meaner, dumber Jigger Cragin (Joshua Doss), come into view. In the second act, Billy returns from the dead to visit his wife and daughter one more time—like It's a Wonderful Life grafted to Our Town.

Another obstacle in staging Carousel: Not many musical theater actors dare to take on Billy Bigelow. The role sets the character up as a hot young firebrand, a sexy, if slightly dimwitted, ne'er-do-well. He's the opposite of good-guy Curly in Oklahoma! Billy is as brooding as that show's "Pore Jud," with the outsized ego of the King of Siam. If only Billy were all villain, it would be easier to hate him and to play him. But singing "If I Loved You," the ultimate anti-love song, Billy has to be believably tough and tender.

Whoever plays Billy Bigelow also has to wrestle vocally with some of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most difficult music, including the famous "Soliloquy" that closes Act 1. The rangy story-ballad leads to Billy's life-changing moment. He's about to become a father, and he rhapsodizes first in macho fashion about "my boy Bill" before softening suddenly to realize the child might be a girl, "pink and white." Realizing he doesn't have the means to support a family, Billy resolves to do whatever it takes to get money—a decision that sends him hurtling toward tragedy. The solo is a showstopper requiring enormous vocal power, plus delicate acting and the sort of magnetic stage presence that forces an audience to rivet its attention on one actor singing his heart out alone on an almost empty stage. The run to the final high note is a killer.

Lyric found its perfect, rivet-worthy Billy in Christopher Pinnella, a New York-based Equity actor with a muscular baritone and biceps to match. Pinnella is the cocksure stud in his seduction scene with virginal Julie, but he allows a telling glimpse of Billy's loneliness early on (for which we might thank the production's woman director). Behind the swagger he's a struggling grifter tired of living under the thumb of his oversexed boss (Stacia Malone). This Billy falls hard for innocent, equally lonely Julie, although he can't say it out loud. Even when he's raising his hand to her, he's a sympathetic brute. Sure, the show's lenient attitude toward spousal abuse seems out of step with modern sensibilities. But Billy gets his chance at redemption and sees the error of his ways, Heaven Can Wait style, in his second act journey to the pearly gates and back.

Loyal, heartbroken Julie can't change or save Billy, and that's one of the great, sad truths of Carousel. After Billy dies, Julie's pious friend Carrie Snow (Dara Whitehead Allen), who's married to the richest prig in town (played as a starchy buffoon by Jackson Ross Best Jr.), tells her she's better off without him. Julie agrees, but she punishes Billy and herself by raising their daughter Louise (Lili Froehlich) to feel as unloved and isolated as her parents.

Much of Rodgers and Hammerstein's storytelling here is done not in songs or book sequences but in music and movement. The soaring, 10-minute "Carousel Waltz" opens the first act with wordless scene setting. Behind a line of women working rhythmically at their looms in the mill, the swirling lights of a Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round magically come into view. Then in a whoosh, the carnival disappears, leaving a bare stage lit by a full moon and a starry sky (lighting design by Julie Simmons). In a blink, there's a beach, a dock. Later the (slightly overactive) fog machines kick in and a pea souper swirls Billy to the entrance to the great beyond. Scenery by John Farrell succeeds by suggesting rather than insisting on these things.

Like other shows of its era, Carousel slows up and quiets down for the comic relief of a lusty sailor's hornpipe or the dreaminess of a ballet. As they did first with Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein use dance to advance plot. Silently acting out her encounter with a brash young carny (John de los Santos), 15-year-old Louise dances with the boy on the beach, their splashes and tumbles serving as sexual metaphor. Lyric's choreographer Len Pfluger, whether borrowing Agnes de Mille's original steps literally or using them as inspiration, blends natural gesture with classical forms. The result is a breathtaking tumble of arms and legs as Froehlich and de los Santos carry out their sensuous duet.

How fine, how satisfying to be thrilled through and through by a local production of one of the best shows in American musical theater. It's not enough to say the singing, dancing and acting in Lyric's Carousel—particularly by Pinnella and Whalen (a UT-Arlington grad) in the leads—are Broadway caliber. Broadway rarely casts anything this well anymore. Given the budget limits and space restrictions of regional theater, it's unlikely that a Carousel this big and beautiful will come this way again.

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