“Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone,” Nettie Fowler sings halfway through the second act of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. The lyrics might be a bit on the nose, but for Arena Stage’s production of the musical, transformed from standard, audience-pleasing fare into something extraordinary by its dazzling ensemble, this sentiment feels somewhat appropriate.
Set in a coastal Maine mill town in the late 19th century, the story follows the relationship between Coney Island carousel barker Billy Bigelow and factory worker Julie Jordan. But don’t expect to settle in to see the traditional love-marriage-baby narrative play out. While all those elements are present, Carousel looks more intimately at the ways humans fail one another and the limits of redemption. Rather than build elaborate back stories for Billy and Julie, Rodgers and Hammerstein chose to examine the connection between these two characters over the first two months of their relationship—what led up to the moment they met does not matter.
Making her Arena Stage debut, Betsy Morgan imparts a sense of world-weariness in her portrayal of Julie. She wants to escape the monotonous tasks she performs day after day at the cotton mill, and getting together with Billy brings some excitement to her life. He’s seen more of the world than she has and partnering with him feels thrilling and terrifying. Nicholas Rodriguez, whose portrayal of Curley in Arena’s 2010 production of Oklahoma earned a Helen Hayes award, possesses so much sweetness that it’s hard to believe him as the tough and stubborn Billy, a man so frustrated with life that he physically lashes out against those he loves. His starry-eyed hope makes sense in the second act, but when Billy does truly awful things, the portrayal needs a more sinister approach.
Director Molly Smith uses the rest of the company to fully build out this fictional world. Local favorite E. Faye Butler sells her role as Mrs. Mullin, the owner of the carousel, with haughty laughter and stage-commanding gestures, while Kate Rockwell steals the show as Carrie Pipperidge, Julie’s best friend who provides comic relief and emotional support in equal doses. The 19 tireless chorus members play everything from bearded ladies and carousel horses to townspeople and sailors and sell every role. Through them, the town comes alive.
In adapting Carousel for Arena’s round Fichandler Stage, Smith has found ways to simplify a show that could get bogged down by having too many physical things on stage. She does away with props entirely, choosing to convey important changes through costumes. Music director Paul Sportelli received special permission from R&H Theatricals to adapt the orchestrations for a 12-piece group, which set designer Todd Rosenthal places in a suspended structure above the stage so the music fully envelops the performers and the audience. Choreographer Parker Esse also departs from tradition, applying modern touches to Agnes De Mille’s classic second-act ballet, creating a dance that looks less dreamy and delicate but still conveys the piece’s meaning. The result is a show that feels new, despite debuting on Broadway more than seven decades ago and being set in a more distant time period.
Smith calls Carousel “the Hamlet of American musicals.” The musical includes fewer calculating murderers but both works question whether or not a character’s actions can be redeemed and share a curiosity with life after death. Billy Bigelow seems like a ne’er-do-well—he certainly sees himself that way—but it’s up to the audience and Julie to decide whether he can overcome those negative traits. Whether he’s the villain or hero, lover or louse, his memory remains in the minds of the characters and the audience. Passing up the straight-forward happy ending also yields something more rewarding: a musical that the audience keeps humming and thinking about days later.
At Arena Stage through Dec. 24. 1101 6th St. SW. $50-$99. (202) 488-3300. arenastage.org.