Saturday Cinema

Minnesota Orchestra's 'Carousel' is all about the music

Minnesota State Fair carouselNikki Tundel/MPR

March 20, 2015

When the lights went up at Orchestra Hall for intermission at yesterday's matinee performance of Carousel, the woman sitting next to me sighed. "Things were so much simpler," she said, "in the days of those old musicals."

Well, yes — in a sense. There weren't any smartphones, sure, but there was unemployment, there was sexual harassment, and there was death. When it came to things like domestic violence, today's viewers of the 1945 musical might be inclined to think, a little more simplicity might not have been a bad idea. You know, just a bit of moral clarity around whether someone can hit you in a way that shows he really loves you.

Carousel is a landmark of American musical theater, a masterwork from the era when artists like Rogers and Hammerstein were demonstrating that Broadway musicals could have operatic scope and depth. As in an opera, Rogers's orchestra is an independent voice in Carousel; songs stop, start, reverse, and recur, deployed not just as song-and-dance interludes but as flexible thematic material.

That depth of expression was required to make Carousel work at all: it's a thorny tale centering on Billy Bigelow, an antihero who beats his wife (whether hitting her once counts as "beating" her is a matter of repeated debate) and who isn't given many redeeming qualities to offset his many shortcomings.

Everything is ambiguous here: Billy quits his job as a seedy carnival barker to marry a nice young lady, but it may well be that he should have just kept it. He's a victim of an act of violence that could have been portrayed as noble, but instead is regarded to be pathetic. His story arc involves a redemption, but it's a redemption that's given, not earned.

Stiff stuff, despite being presented among joyful songs like "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and hopeful hymns like the classic "You'll Never Walk Alone." Carousel has all the ingredients of a feel-good family saga, but Rogers and Hammerstein were cooking with the heat of hellfire.

The semi-staged production now being presented by the Minnesota Orchestra under the confident baton of Sarah Hicks — there are three more performances, and tonight's will be broadcast live by Classical MPR starting at 8:00 p.m. — does the orchestra the service of lifting them out of the pit. The audience gets the treat of hearing and seeing the players at center stage, where the details of Rogers's brilliant score come to life.

The downside of this arrangement is that it throws off the balance between the orchestra and the singers, who wear body mics to make up the difference. Yesterday, there was wide variability in how effectively this was done, but hopefully the sound problems were just a matter of ironing some kinks out before the weekend performances.

Preisser's Billy is introspective and gruff; he effectively conveys the character's inner torture, though he's such a forbidding figure that I had to stretch my imagination to find a spark of romance between him and his bride Julie (a charming Sarah Lawrence, who summons great emotion in the final scene). Preisser has a huge voice, and he's utterly commanding in his epic "Soliloquy," one of the most distinctive numbers in Carousel. Rodau and Coate are fine actors as well as singers, and present a winning counterpoint to the weighty woes of the star-crossed leads.

This semi-staged production, directed by Robert Neu, is staged enough that there's quite a bit of dance; the choreographer Penelope Freeh shows up onstage herself in the character of young Louise, dancing a duet (with Matthew Keefe) that nicely balances classical precision with Broadway flair.

In a work as complex and challenging as Carousel, no single production can pretend to be definitive. While other productions might bring out more of the dramatic subtleties of this material, the Minnesota Orchestra's version puts the music first, making a strong case for the underappreciated skills of Rodgers as not just a melodist but a master of orchestral arrangement. You have to hear this music to believe it, and Hicks and her band make certain you do.