REVIEW: Carousel (Light Opera Works)

Industrial Strength Nostalgia

 

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Light Opera Works presents
   
Carousel
  
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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Review: Light Opera Work’s "My Fair Lady"

My Fair Lady 

Light Opera Works presents

My Fair Lady
based on George Bernard Shaw‘s Pygmalion
book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe
through Sunday, August 30th (buy tickets)

One of the crown jewels of Broadway’s Golden Age of Musicals, My Fair Lady, from its original Tony Award-winning production, to its best-selling cast album, to its Best Picture-winning film, may well be the best-known and most often produced entry in the musical theatre canon. And it has all of the hallmarks of its genre: the gorgeous melodies, the comic show stoppers, the happy ending… Since 1956, everything about My Fair Lady has been inescapable, as warm and familiar as Higgins’ slippers.

3439Fc Which is precisely what Light Opera Works is serving up at Northwestern’s Cahn Auditorium (map) in Evanston. From the musical phrasing to the Cecil Beaton Ascot costumes, everything is as we remember it. There are no surprises – good or bad – and whether you consider that a blessing or a curse will determine how you respond to this My Fair Lady.

The performers have without exception strong voices and portray convincing enough characters, within the somewhat tradition-bound scope of their roles. Natalie Ford‘s Eliza is, by turns, plucky, elegant, and determined, and her “I Could Have Danced All Night” was, as it usually is, a  tour de force. Cary Lovett, as Liza’s father Alfred, and Jeff MacMullen, as erstwhile suitor Freddy, deliver their equally-well-known music hall-style and pining young lover turns with all requisite charm – and, in Mr. MacMullen’s case, with a soaring tenor voice that breathes real life into “On the Street Where You Live.” In a smaller, non-singing role, Jo Ann Minds brings a brittle wit to her portrayal of Higgins’ mother that would make Dame Judi Dench quite proud.

3439Fa Nick Sandys, as Professor Henry Higgins, is bit less successful – if by “success” we mean simply delivering a fascimile of what we’ve seen before. Sandys is younger – significantly younger, it would appear – than Rex Harrison in this part. His aristocratic good looks make Eliza’s attraction to him much easier to see, and throw his relationship with his mother into much sharper focus. Sandys is quicker, and brighter, as Higgins, his mind always at work; it is easy to understand this Professor not seeing the love blooming before his very eyes.

In the end, as the chorus of “I Could Have Danced All Night” swells through the full orchestra’s strings, and Liza goes to fetch Higgins’ slippers, we get from this My Fair Lady exactly what Light Opera Works promised. If you’re in the mood for a faithful recreation of a familiar musical classic, My Fair Lady will be performed through August 30th.

Rating: «««

 

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Review: ‘A Little Night Music’ (Light Opera Works)

Light Opera Works doesn’t disappoint with their foray into Sondheim’s Scandinavian twilight masterpiece

 

Catherine Lord (Désirée Armfeldt) and Larry Adams (Fredrik Egerman) are caught by Michael Cavalieri (Carl-Magnus Malcom) 

A Little Night Music
by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler
Light Opera Works

Reviewed by Richard Millward

Stephen Sondheim‘s A Little Night Music stands almost alone in the grand sweep of his works for musical theatre – though set in the perpetual twilight of a Scandinavian summer night, A Little Night Music is perhaps his lightest show. Far better known for “the shadows where, artistically at least, he has always felt most at home,” in the words of NY Times critic Ben Brantley, Sondheim here takes a less tragic, more bemused view of love and its foibles. Although ..Night Music starts with pairs of lovers – some mismatched, some not remembering why they matched in the first place – the romantic, waltz-based score leaves little doubt that come the night’s final turn about the ballroom floor, love will right all wrongs.

A Little Night Music 2 Seldom seen outside of opera houses due to the breadth and complexity of its score, A Little Night Music is now revived by Light Opera Works in Evanston through June 14. As audiences have come to expect from Light Opera Works, the quality of the production’s music make this a production well worth seeing. It is a delight to hear Jonathan Tunick‘s orchestration of some of Sondheim’s most memorable songs given a treatment at once lush and precise (through a 28-piece orchestra), under the baton of music director and conductor, Roger L. Bingaman. The demands of the vocal score, with its intricate harmonies and counterpoints, are a challenge to which this cast seem generally well-suited.

Almost without exception, the principals give strong, musically solid performances. The trio of “Soon,” “Now,” and “Later,” sung by Natalie Ford, Larry Adams, and Mike Reckling, the “Liasisons” of Judy Golman, and the quintet that act as a Greek chorus throughout were uniformly well-sung. Catherine Lord, as the actress Desiree Armfeldt, delivers the show’s “hit” song, “Send in the Clowns,” with subtlety and a heartbreaking, self-knowing regret. A singer cast in a role written for a non-singer, Miss Lord has vocal power to spare in delivering a “Send in the Clowns” you will not soon forget.

A Little Night Music 3 Only Jessye Wright, as the Countess Malcolm, and Megan Long, as the maid, Petra, fail to deliver in their solo turns. Although Miss Wright has some of the biting, self-deprecating wit her role requires, she unfortunately has been cast in a role unsuited to her singing voice, and she struggles to change registers in “Every Day a Little Death.” Miss Long’s “The Miller’s Son” is undermined by her brassy voice but perhaps more so by a tempo much slower than one would expect and some jarringly suggestive moves that conspired to render her number, always problematic in the flow of A Little Night Music’s book, a mood-deflecting speedbump so close to the denouement.

But these are minor faults in an evening in which one can experience the thrill of hearing a full chorus and orchestra set off on such an incredibly joyous “Weekend in the Country.” Mr. Sondheim may prefer the shadows, but his foray into the Scandinavian twilight remains a romantic masterpiece, and it is delivered by Light Opera Works with the loving musical care it deserves.

Rating: «««½

June 5 –14, 2009
At Cahn Auditorium – 600 Emerson, Evanston, IL

Additional reviews:

Pioneer Press: ‘Night Music’ a beloved tale for a reason