Friday, March 13, 2015

reviews - CAROUSEL - Mesa Encore Theatre

Brenda Jean Foley
and Joseph Cannon
For more information on this production, that runs through March 22nd, click here.

"As far as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musicals go, many people consider Carousel to be on a level below their other classics, Sound of Music, The King and I, South Pacific and Oklahoma! I'm not sure if that has to do with the subject matter of the show, which touches upon domestic violence, or the fact that the main male character is more of an anti-hero. It's a shame no matter what the reason, as the score of Carousel has some beautiful ballads, the characters are interesting and, when you have exceptional leads like the current Mesa Encore Production has, the end result is a soaring musical that touches upon situations that few musicals rarely examine.
Carousel's score is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most sophisticated. While there are several more traditional, standalone songs, like "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "June is Bustin' Out All Over," there are others where Hammerstein's lyrics and dialogue ingeniously flow naturally in and out of each other. These include "You're a Queer One, Julie Jordan" and "If I Loved You." Phillip Fazio and Sarah Wolter expertly co-direct the production so that these non-traditional songs seem completely organic to the feelings of the characters, and the lyrics simply another way for them to tell us their thoughts. Brenda Jean Foley and Joseph Cannon are quite good as Julie and Billy. Both have fine-tuned facial expressions, well thought out dialogue delivery, and they bring a deep, realistic connection to their vocals. Through Foley, Julie's apprehension when, at their first meeting, she doesn't quite know if she wants to stay with Billy or leave with her friend Carrie, is matched by the combination of excitement, confusion, joy, and self-awareness Cannon achieves during his big solo, "Soliloquy" as Billy. Fazio and Wolter have staged several of the scenes with the couple almost as if they were mating dances, and Foley and Cannon's performances perfectly match the staging as they are full of nuance, realism and excitement yet, underneath, also have a profound sense of courage and inner strength with a dose of discontent. As Julie's friend Carrie, Alanna Kalbfleisch is simply superb. Full of life and joy, with clear and rich vocals, Kalbfleisch is giving one of the best supporting performances so far this season. You can't take your eyes off of her when she is on stage. Harmon Swartz achieves an engaging performance as Carrie's attended, the highly motivated fisherman Enoch Snow, and Carrie Klofach delivers a touching and moving version of "You'll Never Walk Alone." While the direction and prerecorded musical tracks are top notch, the minimalistic set design means the opening "Carousel Waltz," where Julie and Carrie attend the fair and encounter Billy at the carousel, is not very clear. While the ensemble members effectively represent fair-goers and carnie folk, the carousel itself is so barebones that it resembles a very simple May pole. Even Jennifer Cafarella's choreography is unable to clarify to anyone who has never seen the show before that the women are supposed to be riding a carousel. Jeff A. Davis & Jackson Pots' lighting design is exquisite and lush and scenic designer Douglas Clarke's decision to use a round circle, high above the stage, on which images of a clock face, the sun, and the moon are projected, is simple and superb.  Cafarella's choreography for the second act ballet is a perfect combination of athleticism and romantic ballet steps which Jacqueline Brecker and Connor Wince deliver expertly. The beauty of this Mesa Encore Theatre production is that it doesn't shy away from the serious topic of spousal abuse, yet also doesn't dwell on it, and Foley and Cannon deliver fine portrayals of the imperfect characters that the abuse impacts. Even with a few shortcomings and the barebones design aspects, with superb leads, excellent actors in the supporting roles, and clear direction, the MET production of Carousel is quite an achievement." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

"Mesa Encore Theatre is doing a brave thing. They opened Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel last night. Far braver was Brenda Jean Foley, who took on the role of Julie Jordan in a heart-wrenching, non-traditional way. The thing is, Carousel--with it's beautiful score that includes "You'll Never Walk Alone" and the famous "Carousel Waltz" that hit Broadway in 1945--used to be a love story. It was about true love and unconditional forgiveness and heavenly pardons.  Billy beats Julie. Beyond love, what's always lurked heavily in the story is domestic violence. And last night's production shone a spotlight on it. In Julie and Billy's first beautiful duet "If I Loved You" the hard edges were visible, even though both characters were clearly smitten with one another. Joseph Cannon as Billy demonstrated well that his twitterpation with Julie was deeply colored by his own insecurities and false bravado. It was a commendable broad range to display. With blackened eye and trembling resolve, Julie soldiered on in MET's production, unable to leave her Billy. And the squeamish viewers couldn't look away. Such a sensitive, unvarnished treatment of a social issue from which we can't shy starkly draped the stage. Complexities and questions were what remained. Can love and violence coexist in a relationship? Can the cycle of damage be broken?   As comic relief, Alanna Kalbfleisch and Harmon Swartz, as Carrie and Mr. Snow, were great fun. Kalbfleisch in particular had a liquid candy voice to complement her spicy attitude.  MET has changed the traditional presentation of Carousel, thanks to Wolter and Fazio's leadership. Rather than a show often shelved because it fails to address the elephant in the room, or glosses over hardships with hollow declarations about love, this production tells a compelling contemporary tale. Through this telling, the Rodgers and Hammerstein show can live strongly and remain relevant in the classic musical theatre canon." -Jennifer Haaland, Examiner.com (click here to read the complete review)

"Mesa Encore Theatre is celebrating the 70th Anniversary of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel with a delightful and dazzling production, directed by Philip Fazio and Sarah Wolter and featuring standout acting and singing performances by Brenda Jean Foley as Julie Jordan, Joseph Cannon as Billy Bigelow, Alanna Kalbfleisch as Carrie Pepperidge, and Harmon Swartz as Enoch Snow. Billy Bigelow is the prototypical bully with the veneer of a tough guy compensating for the wounds and abuses of his early life. He may want to do right, but wrong seems to be his steady companion. Julie catches his eye only to have her eye eventually catch his fist. Their relationship, evolving (or devolving) from a wistful and tender exchange (If I Loved You) to an abusive marriage contrasts markedly with the burgeoning love of her best friend Carrie with the herring fisherman, Enoch Snow (When the Children Are Asleep). I must say again that Ms. Foley and Ms. Kalbfleisch are exemplary in their performances, capturing in both expression and vocals the essence of their characters. Likewise, Mr. Cannon skillfully unwraps the tensions that eat as his character's soul and, with a powerhouse voice, manifests both the swagger and vulnerability of Billy Bigelow.  In an evocative and inspired ballet, Jacqueline Brecker (Louise) and Connor Wince (Carnival Boy), dance the dance of unrequited love. It is poetry in motion!  The singing and acting are divine. The entire ensemble is a spirited and seamless whole. Jeff Davis and Jackson Potts' lighting effects are exquisite. Jennifer Cafarella's choreography is sublime.  Mr. Fazio and Ms. Wolter have borne a hit and won the brass ring! Kudos for a four-star achievement! "Herbert Paine, Broadway World (click here to read the complete review)

Photo: Alastair Gamble

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