The musical “Carousel” is like the amusement park ride of its title — you either love it or it makes you puke.
Many productions emphasize the lovey-dovey aspects of the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which can make you feel like you’ve had too many spins on the Tilt-a-Whirl after a couple bags of cotton candy.
Other stagings, like the 1996 revival, strip away the sentimentality and cloying Americana to concentrate on the soaring storytelling of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs, and the musical’s darker themes of love and fear.
Olney Theatre Center’s rendition, directed by Brad Watkins, falls somewhere between the two extremes.
This production doesn’t gloss over the domestic violence that permeates the relationship between former mill girl Julie Jordan (Erin Davie) and smack-happy carny Billy Bigelow (Caesar Samayoa). At the same time, its greeting card picture of a New England fishing village in the late 1880s can stick in your craw like a bad clam.
Olney has taken a “chamber musical” approach to the work, paring the cast down to 18, the orchestra to a bare minimum, and keeping the staging simple. This cuts costs, but also exposes the musical’s flaws, chiefly, its sometimes jarring juxtapositions. Songs about herring, the month of June, and geraniums in the “winder box” coexist uneasily with a rougher subtext involving wife beating, suicide, unhappy children, and crimes of desperation.
Tackling tough topics is nothing new in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. “South Pacific” deals with racism and “Oklahoma” with sexual desire and obsession. With “Carousel,” the psychological permutations require a deft hand so that the audience is rooting for the tormented Billy Bigelow and his lone chance at redemption rather than hoping he’s condemned to eternal damnation for his earthly deeds.
Unfortunately, Mr. Watkins displays little dexterity with the material, giving us a “Carousel” that is workmanlike but hardly uplifting or emotionally knotty.
Like many musicals, “Carousel” is about love, the thornier kind between two stubborn, damaged souls who find each other. Julie Jordan is an independent, free-thinking sort. She’s not like the other girls at the mill, like her friend Carrie Pipperidge (Tracy Lynn Olivera), intent on snaring a husband and having a passel of kids. Julie is a solitary girl — until her fatal attraction to Billy Bigelow. Billy, while handsome and arrogantly sexy, drinks, carouses, has a police record and is quick with his fists.
As Carrie says, Julie is better off when Billy dies of a self-inflicted knife wound after a robbery gone awry. Billy goes to a bristly afterlife, where he is given one opportunity to set things right on Earth with his willful, frustrated daughter Louise (Jen Segawa).
The musical features indelible songs — “If I Loved You,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Soliloquy” and “June Is Busting Out All Over.” All are well-sung by the cast. Yet, there seems to be an underlying malaise with the show, as cast members appear either intimidated by the material, groping with the staging, or uncomfortable in their costumes.
A couple of standout performances keep “Carousel” from being a completely creaky merry-go-round. Miss Olivera is excellent as the high-spirited and driven Carrie, bringing out the colorations in the classic score while giving the character some distinctive sparks all her own. Nehal Joshi is a geeky sensation as her spouse, Mr. Snow, a prig in the making. Mr. Joshi’s booming voice and ingratiating personality add much-needed life to the production.
Jeffries Thaiss also makes a strong impression as Billy’s lowlife friend Jigger, favoring the comic, rascally aspects of the character. Mr. Samayoa is a “Method” Billy Bigelow. He takes some warming up to, but once he settles into the role you are moved by the emotional rawness of his portrayal.
If this production of “Carousel” were more even and less dutiful, it would have set the holiday season a-swirl.
WHAT: “Carousel” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road., Olney
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Dec. 26.
TICKETS: $15 to $36
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS