Most musicals build to a grand finale but Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Carousel begins with a visual bang thanks to the hauntingly beautiful carnival setting created by Production Designer Paolo Ventura. The Italian artist’s imagery has a European, almost cinematic feel, which is reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s La Strada, the classic 1954 film that follows a circus waif who is physically and emotionally abused by her strongman husband. Nearly a decade earlier, Carousel by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II visited a similar theme.
Based on the 1909 Hungarian drama Liliom by Ferenc Molnár, the story revolves around carnival cad Billy Bigelow (Steven Pasquale) and his staunchly submissive sweetheart Julie Jordan (Laura Osnes) who let nature take its course even though they know it will cost them their jobs and more. Soon after they’re united, Billy begins hitting the bottle and his new bride.
At the same time, Julie’s friend (Jenn Gambatese) gets engaged to a decent and domesticated fisherman (Matthew Hydzik) who wants her to bear a fleet of his children. Whether wed to a good or bad mate, it seems unlikely either woman will have an easy ride or so it goes in “Stonecutters Cut It On Stone” wherein the townsfolk sing, “A girl who’s in love with any man is doomed to weep and wail.”
Other songs include “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, “If I Loved You”, and the show-stopping “Soliloquy” all performed with well-executed exuberance by Lyric’s orchestra conducted by David Chase. Equally engaging are the saucy dance numbers based on Agnes de Mille’s original choreography updated by the play’s director Tony, Emmy, and Olivier Award-winner Rob Ashford.
In addition to the dancers who are literally in fine form, the leads and supporting cast (including Denyce Graves, Jarrod Emick, Charlotte d’Amboise and Tony Roberts) are excellent as are the costume designs by Catherine Zuber.
Together the first-rate performances and production values cushion the play’s unapologetically un-PC material which, in all fairness, is not restricted to this musical: Nancy from Oliver! and Sandy from Grease suffer a loss of life and identity, respectively, due to their love of bad boys. Hopefully the fates of these characters remain in past centuries, affording heroines of today more auspicious options—and that alone is something to sing about.
Carousel runs through May 3 at the Civic Opera House on 20 N. Wacker Drive in Chicago. Patrons can view an accompanying exhibition on the lower level during intermission. For tickets and more information, visit lyricopera.org/carousel or call 312-827-5600.