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San Pedro Playhouse’s Carouseloffers more than nostalgia in a time of war

The San Pedro Playhouse’s summer production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel opens with a lone man on the first step of a stairway (OK, ladder) to heaven, followed by a delightfully choreographed group of young girls miming the darker, and repetitious, labor of factory-mill work in 1870s Maine. The stage is set for both comedy and tragedy.

This story of love and loss — adapted from a 1909 play by Hungarian writer and Nazi escapee Ferenc Molnar — has a surprising relevance for 21st-century audiences. The first production of Carouselopened in April 1945 in a world agonizing in the final throes of World War II. Its most powerful and enduring song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” still resonates as beautifully and longingly in today’s time of war as it must have that first night on Broadway.

San Pedro Playhouse director Frank Latson put together two casts for the main roles, who perform on alternating nights. (This author apologizes to the actors I didn’t see, not mentioned in this review.) On a simple set of a raised, round platform inside the square proscenium, backed by a blue-screened changing scrim, this energetic, mostly young ensemble delivers some strong singing while capturing hints of a vanished era in American life. 

The plot in a nutshell: Billy Bigelow (Jason Mosher), a womanizing, beer-drinking carnival barker employed by sometime lover Mrs. Mullin (Rainya Mosher), falls in love with respectable factory girl Julie Jordan (Heather Kelley). In short order, they’re married, Julie’s pregnant, and the new family is struggling financially, as Billy was instantly fired from his carny job when he fell for Julie. During a clambake, Billy and nefarious pal Jigger Craigin (Wade Young) sneak away and attempt a robbery that results in Billy’s death. He goes to heaven, but is allowed one chance to return to earth to try and make an ethereal peace with his now-15-year-old daughter and the widowed Julie. Yes, some suspension of disbelief is required, but thus has it ever been in the ancient rites of the theatre. Think of Ghostor the final scene of the filmTitanic, in which Rose and a resurrected Jack kiss to applause from fellow ill-fated passengers.

The women in this show have strong, beautiful voices and the acting is also quite good, given that the story occasionally leans towards the melodramatic, hammy, and one-dimensional. Some of the men’s voices were a little pitch-deficient, but overall, the brief lack of strong male singing was made up for with good characterization and sincerity. I would have liked to see a little more eye contact between the lovers during Billy and Julie’s famous song, “If I Loved You,” as the passion of the music was not matched by the somewhat cold delivery of the actors. But, to be fair, the characters are supposedly frosty, terse New Englanders.

Comic relief was well-delivered by Julie’s friend Carrie (Jillian Cox) and her beau/husband Enoch (Ezra Johnson). Their portrayal of the fecund and conformist ideal of the day — white-picket-fence prosperity — encapsulates perfectly the Americn dream poverty-burdened social outcasts Billy and Julie are denied.

Carouselwas Rodgers & Hammerstein’s second collaboration, after their enormous success withOklahoma, and many critics have accused it of being a pale imitation of its parent show. But it ran on Broadway for two years before being made into the 1956 movie with Shirley Jones and Gordon MacCrae.

One thing I truly missed from the current Playhouse version was a real orchestra with a few strings, flutes, and horns. As excellent a pianist and music director as Jane Haas is (and she is very, very good), some local corporation or donor should step up to the plate so the theater could afford to pay more musicians when they stage a musical. At the least, a second pianist might add a variety of instruments and textures with an electronic keyboard. Aside from the fact that some of us aging boomers grow more dear each year, a bigger sound from the orchestra pit would boost the production’s strength in every way. 

On these hot San Antonio nights, Carouselis much more than a paean to a supposedly more innocent time, it’s a genuinely interesting mix of the dated and the contemporary, a glimpse of 19th-century morality glossed with the eternal human impulse toward nostalgia. When this cast sings the final “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” theater-goers can’t fail to find a feeling of hope in their heart as they walk, alone and not, through modern storms.  


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