With its tricky mix of kitchen-sink realism, cornpone Americana, and supernatural fantasy—and not an overabundance of likable characters—what this 1945 musical needs to stay buoyant is air, light, poetry, and a dash of sea spray; it needs to cast a spell. The 5th Avenue’s new staging of the Rodgers and Hammerstein show does this in one scene: the Act 2 dance sequence featuring Spectrum Dance Theater, led by Madelyn Koch’s luminous Louise (suddenly, from her first gesture, you feel you’re outdoors) and enlivened by the reappearance of the louche carnival troupe from the show’s opening number. (Imagine the “unconventional conventionists” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show dressed up for a go at Cabaret.)
One scene only, that is. Overall the production is fairly unenchanting, despite a cast of local favorites that would be very hard to surpass—Laura Griffith, Brandon O’Neill, Billie Wildrick, and Anne Allgood, to name just a few. But other details work against them. That opening number, from director Bill Berry and choreographer Donald Byrd, is kind of a clustercuss; it’s hard to extract the mimed plot exposition from the razzle-dazzle. Martin Christoffel’s Our Town-y, bare-stage set seems designed for practicality and economy rather than atmosphere. And the sound system does no favors for the cast’s strong singing voices or for the pit orchestra, which was rendered shrill and coarse—most deflatingly, right from measure one, in the opening waltz, probably my favorite Rodgers number of them all.
It raised intelligibility issues with the dialogue, too, though the cast has to take some blame here. I don’t envy any actor who has to cope with a New England accent; if not kept well under control, they tend to veer off goodness knows where, to Britain, Brooklyn, or somewhere between the Carolinas. But not everyone makes the attempt; O’Neill, as an earthy Billy Bigelow, doesn’t, and it’s not in the least a drawback. Everyone abandons their accent when they sing, anyway, so I would say, on the whole, don’t bother. There are other ways to make the coast of Maine come to life—which this production needs to come up to the 5th’s usual standard as a company whose valuable strength is to make a case for great-but-neglected musicals more often honored than actually staged.
CAROUSEL 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., 625-1900. $29 and up. Runs Tues.–Sun; see 5thavenue.org for exact schedule. Ends March 1.