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Review – “Carousel – A Staged Concert” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center – by Harry Duke


Review – “Carousel – A Staged Concert” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center – by Harry Duke

Is there any more problematic classic Broadway musical to mount these days than Carousel?  Originally produced in 1945, modern audiences are often divided about the Rogers and Hammerstein adaptation of the 1909 Hungarian drama Liliom and its story of ne’er-do-well carnival barker Billy Bigelow. With generational shifts in the role of women in society and sensitivity to the issues of domestic violence, Carousel is chock full of less-than-savory characters and painful situations that can leave an audience feeling somewhat uncomfortable with the show.

Leave it to Gene Abravaya and the Spreckels Theatre Company to take up the challenge with their presentation of Carousel – A Staged Concert, running now through March 1 in Rohnert Park. If the concept of a “staged concert” brings to mind colorfully costumed characters walking up to a microphone and singing, perish those thoughts. Director John Shillington and his cast of Spreckels’ newcomers and veterans bring you a full-fledged production, complete with costumes, choreography, and the full book of the show. The only noticeable differences are a fairly limited set and the fact that the 10 piece orchestra under the direction of Janis Wilson is on the stage and out of the pit.   

Jennifer Micthell, Ezra HernandezCarnival barker Billy Bigelow (Ezra Hernandez) finds himself in the company of millworker Julie Jordan (Jennifer Mitchell) and they both shortly find themselves out of jobs.  Soon married and with a child on the way, the perpetually unemployed Billy makes a series of really poor choices that end in Julie raising their child on her own, though Billy is given a chance to redeem himself.  All this is set to a classic Rogers and Hammerstein score including such well known tunes as “If I Loved You”, “June is Bustin’ Out All Over”, and the certifiable classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

Rebekah Pearson, Jennifer Mitchell, Hannah StephensShillington has a very capable cast handling this material. Hernandez and Mitchell handle both the dramatic and musical elements well and are in fine voice. Rebekah Pearson’s ‘Carrie Pipperidge’ is the voice of reason who has her own share of problems in dealing with a man (Sean O’Brien). They also do good vocal work and bring some occasional lightness to the story. Hannah Stephens brings strength to her role as ‘Nettie Fowler’, and Tim Setzer shows his versatility by taking on an atypical character. ‘Jigger Craigin’ is a nefarious individual who ends up getting Billy into a no-win situation. The fresh-faced ensemble holds their own and in particular shines with Michella Snider’s choreography in the larger musical numbers, and Siena Warnert as ‘Louise Bigelow’ and Casey Rusher as ‘Dream Billy’ impress in an extended ballet sequence.

So what is the issue with which some audiences have a problem? Billy has a temper and that temper has led him to hit his wife - and Julie seems to be accepting of it. While Billy claims it was just “the one time”, he actually ends up doing something similar later in the play. Some people have read specific passages of the play as actually promoting domestic violence. This exchange between mother and daughter in particular seems to really offend:

“But is it possible, Mother, for someone to hit you hard like that, real loud and hard, and not hurt you at all?”

“It is possible, dear... for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all”

Taken out of context, it’s a pretty damn hard-to-defend bit of dialogue.  I think, however, you have to look at the play in its entirety before you rush to judgment. I don’t think Rogers and Hammerstein’s intent was to promote domestic violence but to shine a bit of light onto it and the poor choices that are often made in the name of love.  Furthermore, look at the characters at play here. All the male characters, without exception, are deeply flawed individuals – Billy is for all intents and purposes an unemployed bum, Jigger is a dangerous criminal, the seemingly innocent and affable Enoch is at heart a pretentious jerk  and his son is an obnoxious brat. Even the celestial beings are somewhat prickish.

The Ensemble of Carousel - A Staged ConcertNow look at the female characters. Julie, though long blinded by love, eventually does see that she’s better off without Billy. Carrie is the friend who tries to get Julie to see the error of her ways. Nettie is the maternal figure who takes Julie and her daughter in and encourages her to “walk on” as others will be by her side - which she does - as a single parent. Louise is a tough young girl who’s already able to stand up for herself. All pretty strong female characters.

As for Billy’s “redemption” – another sticking point for many – I see that more as a manifestation of Julie’s ability to forgive him and her resilience in moving on rather than a simple wiping away of Billy’s sins.

After extensive deliberation of these and other show elements, I find myself with this question – Is it possible that a show that some write off as detrimental to women may actually be Broadway’s first feminist musical?

A classic score, well-played characters, skilled dancing from an energetic ensemble and the above question await you if you attend a performance of Carousel – A Staged Concert.  Consider doing so.


Carousel – A Staged Concert

Presented by The Spreckels Theatre Company 

through March 1

Fri/Sat  @ 8pm, Sun@ 2pm

Spreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
(707) 588-3400

Photos by Eric Chazankin

Harry Duke Reviews