Lyric Opera puts its all into Rodgers and Hammerstein's not-so-merry go-round.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s second collaboration doesn’t get that many spins these days—it hasn’t been on Broadway since 1994, and its last major production in Chicago was Court Theatre’s scaled-down staging in 2008. All of which makes this lavish third installment in Lyric Opera’s five-year series of R&H productions feel like a bigger event than the Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music that preceded it.
The Lyric’s new production, directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, is anything but small-scale. This Carousel employs a lush 36-piece orchestra and a raft of ensemble singers, rendering Rodgers’s rich score with exquisite care; lead actors Laura Osnes, Steven Pasquale and Jenn Gambatese sing their roles gorgeously. Scenic designer Paolo Ventura, a visual artist making his theatrical debut, depicts both 19th-century New England and the backyard of Heaven in beautifully simplistic, painterly forms.
Still, the show’s main relationship, that of the smart, capable Julie Jordan (Osnes) and the charismatic but loutish Billy Bigelow (Pasquale), remains a tough sell. Carousel’s excusing view of domestic violence—at best brushing off, at worst condoning—will be a hurdle too high for some audience members; Ashford and Pasquale don’t present the kind of sympathetic grounding for Billy that might lead us, or Julie, to cushion his more repellent behavior. Pasquale’s take on Billy’s eight-minute solo “Soliloquy” is downright transcendent, but Billy’s demeanor in Julie’s presence leaves us wondering what made the girl who insisted she’d never marry change her mind.
Gamabatese, who made a playful Maria in Lyric’s Sound of Music last spring, is an effusive delight as Julie’s love-drunk friend Carrie Pipperidge, and Ashford’s staging of the Act II ballet is an assured thrill (helped by the casting of stalwart Broadway hoofer Charlotte d’Amboise in the relatively thankless role of carousel owner Mrs. Mullin). Musically and visually, Lyric’s Carousel is an unabashed pleasure, even as its plot remains a bumpy ride.
Lyric Opera of Chicago. Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Rob Ashford. With Steven Pasquale, Laura Osnes, Jenn Gambatese, Matthew Hydzik, Denyce Graves, Jarrod Emick, Charlotte D’Amboise, Tony Roberts. Running time: 3hrs; one intermission.