The women are wonderfully warm, and the songs soar the way they’ve always soared—considerably, given that what’s taking wing are such tunes as “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” But there’s something underwhelming, maybe even something a trifle tentative, about the Olney Theatre Center’s chamber-musical spin through Carousel.

Not the story, which wears well enough: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s second huge hit serves up an antihero self-destructive enough to anchor a Showtime series, along with a surprising dollop of existentialist philosophy and a dose of social criticism sharp (if hardly subtle) enough to satisfy anyone looking to do more than whistle a happy tune on the way out of the theater. The self-destruction of inarticulate carnival barker Billy Bigelow—and his maybe-redemption, in a pleading act of grace from the other side—ought to be as moving now as it ever was.

And the shortcomings certainly aren’t to be found among the lives Billy upends so thoroughly. Erin Davie imagines good-hearted Julie Jordan as a kind of savvy innocent, if you can imagine such a thing—a sunny, open, honest creature with a spine of pure steel, an undeceived optimist who sees her man’s dark side and understands what casts the shadows there. “I always knew what you were thinking,” she tells him, sadly and kindly, “and you didn’t always know what I was thinking”—and in that aching equation is the play’s whole heart. Tracy Lynn Olivera makes the luckier Carrie Pipperidge feel likewise real, and sensibly so. Together the two actresses conjure an eminently convincing friendship—one that can credibly endure the strains their divergent histories will put on it as the show goes on. (Wise Oscar Hammerstein: However did you know in 1945 that audiences were ready for a look at love and marriage that saw as much heartache as happily-ever-after?)

Both female leads do justice to tunes audience members will hear in their heads before anyone sings a note; Olivera, particularly, makes fine work of her showcase numbers (the open-hearted “Mister Snow,” for instance), deploying a bell-clear voice with a gratifying touch of velvet in the midrange. And Monica Lijewski rounds out the threesome so central to the score, bringing a veteran’s intelligence and craft to “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and a superbly sung “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The disappointment is between and behind the characters, I’d say: Neither Brad Watkins’ direction nor Christopher Youstra’s musical stewardship lends anything like tension or momentum to the proceedings. That’s perhaps most obvious in the curiously relaxed “June,” which despite Lijewski’s solid lead never displays any exuberance, and in “Blow High, Blow Low,” the whalers’ carouse that usually injects a little dangerous energy into a first act that might otherwise seem long on sun and sweetness. What should be an explosion of muscular, masculine dance here involves nothing more lively than a bit of stomping and tankard-swinging—it leaves you longing for at least a hornpipe—and Youstra, apparently oblivious to the notion that letting a song build is one way to help a show gather energy, lets a couple of showboat tenors take triumphant high notes at the end of every chorus.

The dream ballet that unfolds in Act 2, after Billy has met his thoroughly foreshadowed fate and his daughter has grown up to wrangle with some of the same demons, feels nearly as thin; Jenn Segawa makes an expressively troubled Louise, but she’s weakly partnered, so the whole feels labored. Ilona Kessell’s choreography seems merely perfunctory, as, unfortunately, does the scaled-down orchestration Olney is using; the two-piano reduction, augmented by a string and a woodwind or two, proves utterly unthrilling from the first moments of the ordinarily euphoric waltz-time overture that opens the show.

And though he does manage to stir some emotion midway through Billy’s towering “Soliloquy”—that epic solo in which impending fatherhood awakens the defiant outsider to an understanding of his inadequacies and to a moving, muddle-headed resolve to get around them somehow—Caesar Samayoa has little of the bad-boy charisma you’d expect in a carny who’s got the girls of several townships on a string. It’s not merely that he doesn’t look the part. (Though one wonders if it occurred to anyone at Olney that carefully shaped eyebrows might not be quite the right choice for a 19th-century roughneck. And what’s with those shoulder pads? Costumer Pei Lee’s got some ’splaining to do, too.) It’s that Samayoa works so distractingly hard at the swagger and the slouch; his is a self-conscious performance, and nothing makes an audience more conscious that they’re being performed at. This Billy’s neither magnetic nor menacing—just uncomfortable.

Shorn of dramatic tension and musical magic—and short one tragic hero—Carousel can’t move an audience the way its songs can move a heart unguarded by cynicism. It still speaks of simple joys and sad truths, but its darkness doesn’t loom, and its many kindnesses somehow never overwhelm. It passes unremarkably, an entertaining trifle where a dusk-colored jewel might have glittered.CP

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