Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Carousel is not a happy story. It’s less about the sparkle of a carousel and more about domestic violence, complete with some jaunty tunes. And with a fleet of talented singers and dancers, Houston Grand Opera gives the dark tale its best efforts, as it concludes its season.
A co-production of HGO and Lyric Opera of Chicago, Carousel chronicles a desperate pursuit of happiness of a young and naïve Julie Jordan who falls in love with Billy Bigelow, a rough and handsome carousel barker. By the second scene, their marriage is already showing warning signs as a drunken Billy threatens: “I’ll give you a slap in the jaw.” And when her friend Carrie Pipperidge expresses concern, Julie rationalizes, “He ain’t willingly or meaningly bad.”
After Billy finds out Julie is pregnant, he experiences a wild new commitment to fatherhood. But with a negative influence from his friends (one being a crook in particular), he makes a tragically unwise, last-ditch effort to provide for his family, leaving Julie to be a single mother. Close to the end, Julie explains to her daughter that in memory, “hits become kisses.” It’s a heartbreaking rationalization of abuse that cannot find any happy ending.
Soprano Andrea Carroll, with a voice that sails from the stage like a dulcet bell, is an ideal Julie Jordan. As the ever-supportive friend Carrie Pipperidge, soprano Lauren Snouffer matches Jordan with a sugary demeanor and a serious voice, silver and clearly brilliant. Australian baritone Duncan Rock takes on the gruff role of Billy Bigelow with rakish good grace. While some notes in the first act sounded a bit too low for Rock’s range, his instrument is one of overall heft and surprising dexterity.
It’s a bit of an adjustment to see a musical performed by an opera company, not only because the singing is of a very different genre, but also because of the dancing numbers. As in the past with HGO’s other musicals like Show Boat and A Little Night Music, the singers are electronically amplified to pick up dialogue, but their voices were picked up unevenly, sounding out in loud bursts and, alternatively, unintended quiet whispers. But dancers Abigail Simon and Marty Lawson, as Julie’s daughter and an unnamed carnival boy, held court in a pas de deux of sorts that included supported pirouettes along with cartwheels.
The set, created by Milanese artist Paolo Ventura, comes in hazy shades of pink, purple and red. A constant backdrop of a pastel sea and sunset gives a sense of blurred reality, almost as if it were a cartoon. The production boasts a talented and handsome crew of dancers that move parts of the set around, like the carousel ponies, enhancing the surreal feeling overall. The stage was outlined by a set of unfortunate gold-gray splotched frames, but otherwise, the set successfully captured the essential carnival aesthetic.
If you read the names “Rodgers and Hammerstein” and had visions of The King and I or The Sound of Music, be warned that this is something that is not, as the opening scrim proclaims, an amusement for all ages. But there is some delightful dancing and some great singing talent to be enjoyed, swings ups and downs, at this Carousel.
Through May 7 at 7 p.m. $15 - $178.50. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-228-6737. houstongrandopera.org