Thursday, April 2, 2009

Review: Carousel at Denton Community Theatre

Pictured: Keith Warren as Billy Bigelow; Sarah Geist as Julie Jordan. (Photo by Phillip Lamb)

DISCLAIMER: This review is unsolicited, and written solely for the purpose of the DFW Backstage Blog and its readers. It is not to be re-posted or published without the permission of the author.

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a phrase beginning with “In this economy…” over the past several months, my own economic crisis would be sufficiently erased. Everywhere you look, people and businesses are trying to find ways to cut corners as a way to cut costs, yet still maintain the quality of their life (or their product, as the case may be). The local arts communities are no exception. Many local theatre groups have changed their productions mid-season, lowered ticket prices, offered discounts and, in the worst of cases, shut down due to reduced numbers in the audience affecting their ability to meet the costs involved in mounting a full-scale theatrical production.

However, Denton Community Theatre (DCT) did not shy away from its plans to produce Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical Carousel this month. Rather than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on elaborate sets and costumes, director Sharon Veselic and her production team simply took a different approach in deciding to present the musical in “grand concert style,” opting for a full orchestra (necessary for a lush R&H score) onstage with the actors and a simple, innovative set design consisting of various levels and ramps that surround the musicians. By using the talents of Dallas-based Phillip Lamb, who specializes in creating corporate videos, the creative team implemented technology, in the form of projections, to bring the small New England town to life onstage.

Overall, I think the venture was a successful one. The opening “Carousel Waltz” featured brightly colored images of a carnival projected onto a screen at the back of the theatre, while the carousel (complete with revolving horses!) was projected onto a smaller, custom-built scrim placed in front of the back screen. The images were original, and very eye-catching. However, as the show progressed, I admit I became distracted by some of the projections, as they varied between brightly colored, painted images and photographs of actual seaside communities. I personally would have preferred a consistency in the choice of projections.

I had issues with some of the choices made by the lighting designer and musical director of this production. At times, the actors’ faces were completely hidden in darkness or low lighting, while an unoccupied area of the stage was extremely well-lit in contrast. During the ballet on the beach in Act II, there was no follow spot on Louise, and at times she was dancing in the darkest corners of the stage. As a musical purist, I cringed a bit when the “Carousel Waltz” was shortened, when the reprise of “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” was cut from the end of Act II, and when Nettie’s beautiful solo “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was turned into a full chorus number a few measures in. The onstage orchestra did a fine job of not standing out during the performance, visually, but I couldn’t help but stifle a giggle at one point when I saw all of them holding their ears, ruining the surprise of the gunshot that was fired thirty seconds later.

I applaud DCT for taking an innovative approach to such a classic musical, though and, in doing so, allowing the talent of the performers onstage to shine without the distractions of moving sets, scores of props, and over-the-top costumes. The audience is able to focus on the actor’s voices singing what I believe to be some of the most beautiful and well-known songs in the American musical theatre repertoire. In an age where rock or “jukebox” musicals are all the rage, songs such as “Soliloquy,” “If I Loved You,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” feel like a breath of fresh air. They also require a tremendous vocal ability and this cast handles them ably for the most part.

I am not a fan of the book for this show, due in large part to one of the underlying themes of the show, which is domestic violence. Some of the lines spoken by Julie Jordan have my inner “Women’s Libber” screaming in protest. However, this cast does a nice job of making the characters realistic, rather than stereotypical.

Keith Warren as Billy Bigelow does a fine job of making the audience sympathetic toward him, even as we cringe and groan when he raises his voice or grabs Julie’s arm. Many actors will just play the character as a heartless bastard, but Mr. Warren brings an endearing quality to Billy, most notably in the scenes where Billy and Julie are alone together. Vocally, he masters the role. The “Soliloquy” at the end of Act I is quite possibly one of the most challenging pieces of music in the male repertoire. Operatic singers have even struggled with it. Mr. Warren’s tenor voice, which surprised me as I’m used to hearing the role sung by a baritone, soars in the higher notes and brings a warmth and brightness to the lower sections without pushing to reach them.

Sarah Geist, a recent Column Award winner, brings a quiet strength to the role of Julie Jordan. She is understated without appearing weak, and is markedly different from all of the other characters in the show, some of whom are so larger than life that they are almost caricatures. She steadfastly stands by Billy even when told by her friends and family that she should leave him if he hits her. Ms. Geist’s lovely and clear soprano voice is unaffected which is, again, a nice change from some of the pop musicals currently on the market.

Shane Strawbridge and Erika Ostermiller are charming as Enoch Snow and Carrie Pipperidge, respectively. The relationship between these two characters is vastly different from the relationship between Julie and Billy, and these two actors provide a good comic balance to the more serious tones of the scenes with Julie and Billy.

Two of the standout acting performances came from Desiree Fultz as Mrs. Mullin and Daylon Walton as Jigger Craigin. By comparison, these roles are small and could easily be forgotten about or overshadowed by the larger roles. Ms. Fultz and Mr. Walton, however, prove that there are no small parts – only small actors. Ms. Fultz plays the owner of the carousel with a restrained intensity, causing the audience to wonder how far she would go to keep Billy close to her. Mr. Walton is hilarious as the miscreant Jigger Craigin. He takes a character with no visible redeeming qualities and makes him funny and even likeable (if not a little sleazy), and his New England accent is spot on.

Overall, the production is consistent and solid. I think DCT did a fine job of paving the road for new and innovative ways of presenting standards in the canon of musical theatre in Denton, and that future productions done in the same vein will be successful and impressive. The production runs for one more weekend, and encourage you to go and see for yourself.

Denton Community Theatre presents Carousel by Rodgers & Hammerstein

Location: The Campus Theatre in Historic Downtown Denton
214 W Hickory Street
Denton, TX
(940) 382-1915

Performance Dates & Times:
Mar. 27, 28 & Apr. 2,3,4 at 7:30 pm
Mar. 28, 29 & Apr. 4,5 at 2:00 pm

Ticket Info:
Adults $18.00
Seniors (62 and over) $16.00
Students $10.00