REVIEW: Carousel (Light Opera Works)

Industrial Strength Nostalgia


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Light Opera Works presents
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
Directed by Stacey Flaster
at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson, Evanston (map)
through August 29 |  tickets: $32-$77  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Some candies may melt in your mouth, but practically every song in this glorious 1945 gem of heartfelt Americana melts in your heart. Filled with what’s now post-war nostalgia for an even simpler America (a sea town in Maine in the late 19th century), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lovely and loving masterwork is an inspired reworking of Ferenc Molnari’s Liliom, a knowing drama about an abusive husband who’s given one last—posthumous—chance to redeem himself to the wife he abused and the daughter he never knew but still might save.

Maybe because it’s hard to believe in 2010 that a husband can “hit [his wife] so hard and still not have it hurt” (as Billy Bigelow supposedly does to the too trusting Julie Jordan), the seemingly tender plot of this beloved musical Carousel can also register an ugly shock of recognition. It’s nothing like the vicious menace that Jud Fry offers   Laurie and Curly in the earlier hit Oklahoma!  But this is even closer for discomfort–domestic violence Carousel Light Opera Works Chicago 01nurtured by Billy’s need to strike out at anyone but at the real threat, the loser he feels he is.

The question of whether carnival-barker Billy Bigelow will find posthumous redemption–by offering a star to the daughter he never knew–seems less important than the fact that soon after this unreformed bruiser returns to earth, the abuser slaps his daughter, as he did her mother 15 years before. If he helps his daughter Louise, it doesn’t happen on stage. And this, though Billy knows that his return to the living (like Jimmy Stewart’s in a film from the same year) is his one chance to make up for the cruelty and crimes that shortened his earthly sojourn–and escape the pangs of hell.

Writing about the recent Broadway revival of Carousel, the late William A. Henry III dismissed the 1945 classic as a musical where nothing important happens when it should and in which a rotter’s reformation occurs after it’s too late to matter.

But that’s the lure that drew Oscar Hammerstein to Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom: We need to believe that, unlike letters, love is never lost.

Refusing to dispute her dependency ("What’s The Use of Wondr’rin’?"), Julie Jordan, a lovestruck Victorian millgirl, clings to her seemingly worthless Billy. In real life, Julie’s dogged devotion to a thug would gain her a worse beating. But the musical’s make-believe, plus the powerful persuasion of a deathless anthem like "You’ll Never Walk Alone," improves on fact–at least until you think of Simpson.

Sturdy and sometimes impassioned, Light Opera Works’ revival – very down to earth and up to heaven, unlike the famous and deliriously lyrical Lincoln Center revival of a decade ago – finds a strong moment at the start: The famous waltz accompanies the millgirls’ happy deliverance from work and riotous escape to the carnival, complete with the title amusement. That–and the passionate “dream” dance duo between Nicole Miller and Todd Rhodes–are superb bookends for a literally moving musical.

Carousel Light Opera Works Chicago 05The casting seems made to matter. Cooper David Grodin makes a lean and menacing Billy, with a body language as confident as his tenor and more so than his acting. (He’s trying so hard to be tough that we miss the tenderness that clearly draws Julie to this “bad boy.”) Innocent until ardent, Natalie Ford gives Julie the pole-axed passion that makes this unschooled woman endure so much for her premature prince. But since they don’t connect when it counts–in the wonderful 11-minute "bench scene" that blooms into "If I Loved You"–it’s hard to wish them a second chance.

Ably inhabiting the supporting roles, Elizabeth Lanza enjoys her merry moments as conventional Carrie, a millgirl who enters into a risk-free contract with proper Yankee entrepreneur Enoch Snow (played with gawky rectitude by George Keating). As maternal Aunt Nettie, Winifred Faix Brown makes much of the unstoppable anthem "You’ll Never Walk Alone." Katherine L. Condit as Billy’s true soulmate, the randy Mrs. Mullin, and Jeremy Trager as his nemesis Jigger Craigin suggest the dark side of Billy Bigelow that Julie alone can’t tame. Happily, that doesn’t apply to the musical itself. These songs are surefire charmers and mellow a plot that almost too abruptly changes from flinty New England realism to moonspun and quicksilver wishful thinking. But then “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?”

Rating: ★★★

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Extra Credit:


Production Personnel


Director: Stacey Flaster

Music Director: Roger L. Bingaman (complete with 30-piece orchestra!)

Set Design: Tom Burch

Prop Design: Deborah Lindell and Mealah Heidenreich

Costume Design: Nikki Delhomme

Hair and Make-Up: Sienna Macedon

Light Design: Andrew Meyers

Sound Design; Miles Polaski

Stage Manager: Katie Beeks

Production Manager: Paige Keedy

Leading Roles: Cooper David Grodin (Billy Bigelow), Natalie Ford (Julie Jordan), Elizabeth Lanza (Carrie Pipperidge), George Keating (Enoch Snow) and Winifred Faix Brown (Nettie Fowler).

The Opening Night reception for Carousel is sponsored by Campagnola Restaurant, Evanston.



Stacey Flaster (Director and Choreographer) marks her Light Opera Works directorial debut. Choreography credits with the company include MY FAIR LADY, CARNIVAL!, OKLAHOMA!, and DARLING OF THE DAY. Flaster directed and choreographed JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, FOOTLOOSE, CATS (Jeff Nomination) and A WONDERFUL LIFE at Theatre at the Center. She choreographed JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT (Jeff Nomination), SCROOGE, HELLO, DOLLY!, OKLAHOMA!, GREASE, DO BLACK PATENT LEATHER SHOES REALLY REFLECT UP?, MAN OF LA MANCHA, JOLSON AND COMPANY, THE SOUND OF MUSIC and THE PRODUCERS (Theatre at the Center); WILLY WONKA (Chicago Shakespeare Theater); MISS SAIGON and SOMETHING’S AFOOT (Drury Lane Oakbrook), YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN (Marriott Theatre); I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE (Noble Fool Theatricals); THE SPITFIRE GRILL and SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN (Provision Theatre); MASTER HAROLD… AND THE BOYS (Steppenwolf Theatre); and MADAME X (Alley Cat Productions). Stacey directed BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, CINDERELLA, THE LITTLE MERMAID, ALICE IN WONDERLAND and SLEEPING BEAUTY for Big Noise Theatre. As a performer, Flaster toured nationally with Hal Prince’s SHOW BOAT. She has performed at Light Opera Works, Marriott Theatre, Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, and Drury Lane Oakbrook, among other theaters. Stacey contributed choreography to the Ron Howard film that is shooting in Chicago this summer, starring Vince Vaughn, Winona Ryder, Jennifer Connelly and Kevin James.

Roger L. Bingaman (Music Director) conducts the 30-piece orchestra for CAROUSEL. He made his first appearance on the Light Opera Works podium in 1997, conducting THE MERRY WIDOW. Since then he has conducted many Light Opera Works productions, including BEAUTIFUL HELEN OF TROY, THE STUDENT PRINCE, SWEETHEARTS, NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY, SOUTH PACIFIC, 110 IN THE SHADE, KISS ME, KATE, BITTER SWEET, OKLAHOMA!, GIGI, IOLANTHE, THE MUSIC MAN, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, MY FAIR LADY, THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE and THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD. Bingaman has been director of the apprentice program and chorus master for the Sarasota Opera since 1998.

Cast Biographies

Cooper David Grodin (Billy Bigelow) makes his Light Opera Works debut in CAROUSEL.Born and raised in Manhattan, Mr. Grodin received a voice degree from LaGuardia High School of Music, Art and Performing Arts and a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has sung with the New York and Brooklyn Philharmonics, the National Chorale, and he was seen at the New York City Opera in the New York premiere of GRENDEL, directed by Julie Taymor, and at the Mostly Mozart Festival in ZAIDE, directed by Peter Sellars. He has played Danny in GREASE (Forestburgh Playhouse), Javert in LES MISERABLES (Hebrew University Theater, Jerusalem), and Mr. Snow in CAROUSEL (Brevard Music Festival). This year he was awarded a Lys Symonette Award in the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music’s Lotte Lenya Competition. An avid piano player and composer, Mr. Grodin works in pop bands and as a music director in musical theater, and in 2011, he will understudy Javert in the 25th Anniversary National Company of LES MISERABLES.

Natalie Ford (Julie Jordan) appeared with Light Opera Works as Eliza Doolittle in MY FAIR LADY, Anne in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, the title role in GIGI, Laurey in OKLAHOMA!, Celia in IOLANTHE, and in BERLIN TO BROADWAY WITH KURT WEILL. Other Chicago credits include Mary in A WONDERFUL LIFE (Theatre at the Center) and Antonia in MAN OF LA MANCHA (Chamber Opera Chicago). This summer she appeared as a guest soloist in a Broadway pops concert with the Peninsula Symphony in the San Francisco Bay Area. Other recent solo concert engagements include the works of Bach and Handel’s MESSIAH. Ford holds a Master of Music in Voice from Indiana University and a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance from Valparaiso University.

Elizabeth Lanza (Carrie Pipperidge) makes her Light Opera Works debut in CAROUSEL. At this time last year, Elizabeth was onboard the Disney Wonder cruise ship, fulfilling her childhood dreams by performing as several singing princesses. Other favorite roles include Pistache in Circle Theatre’s CAN-CAN (2008 Jeff Award), Laurey in OKLAHOMA!, Eliza Doolittle in MY FAIR LADY and several seasons at Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre. Elizabeth holds a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from Illinois Wesleyan University.

George Keating (Enoch Snow) makes his Light Opera Works debut in CAROUSEL. He has appeared at Marriott Theatre (LES MISERABLES, THE PRODUCERS, CATS), Drury Lane Oakbrook (RAGTIME, MISS SAIGON, SEUSSICAL), Northlight Theatre (GREY GARDENS, THE GOOD WAR), Chicago Shakespeare Theater (KABUKI LADY MACBETH, THE THREE MUSKETEERS) and Court Theatre (MAN OF LA MANCHA). He was seen at the International Mystery Writers’ Festival in DEATH BY DARKNESS and COLOMBO TAKES THE RAP (Angela Lansbury Award for Best Supporting Actor), and as Tom Jenkins on the national tour of SCROOGE starring Richard Chamberlain. He is the co-founder of TheatreBAM Chicago and co-creator of the hit show SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK LIVE! (off-Broadway, three national tours), holds a B.F.A. in Acting from The Theatre School at DePaul University.

Winifred Faix Brown (Nettie Fowler) appeared with Light Opera Works as the Mother Abbess in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Ms. Brown is an internationally acclaimed soprano, well known throughout Europe, North, Central and South America, where she has performed major roles such as Norma, Violetta, the Marschallin, Donna Anna, Mimi and Musetta. Ms. Brown has been guest artist of the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, as well as theaters in Berlin, Paris and Rome and in virtually all of the regional opera companies of North America. She solos with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and many regional orchestras. Using her degrees in violin and conducting, Ms. Brown is founder and artistic director of CandleOpera and N.O.V.A., the New Organization for Vocal Artistry, a service-based touring company. She has conducted, stage directed and given master classes in New York City, Chicago, Italy, Germany, France and Mexico.


Coming Soon

Carousel is Light Opera Works’ second show of 2010. The season will continue with Jones and Schmidt’s I Do! I Do! (October 3 – November 14) and end with Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly!  (December 26 – January 2). Discounted ticket packages are still available.

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