Original article published on Sharps & Flatirons here.
The smell of love—and fresh cut grass—is in the air. Two young lovers gaze into the settling dusk, framed by glowing carousel banners and scintillating plastic stars, cottonwood fluff falling like blossoms.
Yet despite this idyllic opening scene from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, the show is filled with dark themes of toxic relationships, domestic abuse, crime and suicide, ending with the bittersweet promise of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Central City Opera’s production, which opened on July 3 at Hudson Gardens in Littleton, Colo., under director Ken Cazan, does not shy away from the darker themes, and it also doesn’t attempt to reframe the outdated storyline for a modern audience. With a minimalistic approach to staging and costumes, the focus is on the abusive relationship between Billy Bigelow (Steven LaBrie) and Julie Jordan (Anna Christy), which unfolds with heartbreaking realism.
Carousel, written in 1945, was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s second collaboration after their Broadway hit Oklahoma!. Based on Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom, the musical takes place in a small town in Maine in the early 1900s. It depicts the troubled relationship between charming carousel barker Billy and naive millworker Julie, contrasted by the light-hearted love story of Julie’s best friend Carrie Pepperidge (Jennifer DeDominici) and the pious, ambitious fisherman Enoch Snow (Will Ferguson).
From the beginning, the whirlwind romance between Billy and Julie is clearly ill-fated. Billy is lazy, quick-tempered and emotionally stunted, while Julie is a hopeless romantic, too forgiving for her own good. A few months into their marriage, Billy physically abuses Julie, an upsetting yet hardly surprising development. (He later denies it, saying, “I wouldn’t beat a little thing like that—I hit her.”) Later when he learns Julie is pregnant, he decides to commit a robbery to provide for his future family and kills himself when it fails.
Although domestic abuse was largely ignored (and sometimes encouraged) at the time, Rodgers and Hammerstein initially had misgivings about turning Liliom into a musical. After all, a “wife-beater” who abandons his pregnant wife is hardly a sympathetic protagonist.
So the duo crafted a more optimistic, though morally problematic, ending: while his counterpart Liliom is banished to purgatory, Billy is redeemed and goes to heaven (after abusing his daughter on his second chance and offering a few words of encouragement and an “I love you” on his third). By reframing the dark tale as an uplifting story of redemption, they managed to appeal to mainstream audiences, and the show became an instant hit on Broadway.
However, since the #MeToo movement Carousel revivals have faced intense criticism. The musical has been accused of romanticizing an abusive relationship and having a sympathetic portrayal of Billy as a flawed man worthy of redemption.
In response, several recent productions have cut a few of Julie’s controversial lines, but these small deletions are a superficial fix at best and to an extent deny the realities of how victims may perceive their abusers. The main issue that productions, including this one, haven’t yet dared to address lies in Billy’s final redemption, even though his abusive nature has not fundamentally changed.
In Central City Opera’s production, Cazan has taken a more hands-off approach to the issue. Julie’s controversial lines remain intact, and the production leaves the moral dilemma of Billy’s redemption unanswered.
In her role as Julie, Christy skillfully portrays a nuanced character, a compassionate girl who loves a cruel man deeply and unconditionally, even when she shouldn’t. In “If I Loved You,” Christy’s sparkling soprano soared across the garden, filled with love and hope. Then as the play progresses, her bright, spirited disposition fades, and she sinks into herself, hiding in an oversized olive sweater draped over her elegant dress. When she is with Billy, she flinches away from him, defiant but afraid.
LaBrie, in his portrayal of Billy, leans into the despicableness of his character. Cutting an imposing figure onstage, LaBrie towers over Christy as Julie, his booming voice and menacing movements evoking a sense of dread. Though he never hits Julie onstage, he seems poised to do so at any moment, like a coiled spring ready to snap.
Yet, there are also sweet, charming moments early on in “If I Loved You,” the closest Billy ever comes in life to admitting his feelings. In “Soliloquy,” a tender song about his future child (whom he hopes will be a boy, of course), LaBrie captures the essence of Billy, a man riddled with toxic masculinity and prone to self-destructive behavior, unable to express his love for his wife and unborn child in a healthy way.
Despite the difficult material, the show is sprinkled with several funny and heartwarming moments, mostly from Carrie and Enoch. Their relationship is imperfect and at times sexist—Enoch imposes his dream of a big family onto Carrie and blames her for being sexually assaulted by Billy’s crony Jigger Craig. Yet, overall Ferguson portrays Enoch as a good-hearted man, who tries his best to love Carrie, while also providing much-needed comic relief with his infectious guffaw and social awkwardness.
The ending, however, remains a twisted tale of redemption. With closed eyes, the final sweeping chorus of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is deeply moving. The uplifting music is almost enough to convince us that Billy deserves to be redeemed.
Almost. But unless we are as forgiving as Julie, after the music fades, it’s hard to believe that a single moment of kindness could make up for Billy’s sins.
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Music by Richard Rogers, book by Oscar Hammerstein
7 p.m. Tuesday, July 13; Thursday, July 15; Saturday, July 17; Friday, July 23; Tuesday, July 27; Thursday, July 29
3 p.m. Wednesday July 7; Sunday, July 11; Sunday, July 25; Thursday, July 29; Sunday, August 1
Hudson Gardens, Littleton, Colo.
Tickets can be purchased here.