Madison Repertory Theatre makes a foray into the realm of musical theater this summer, and in signature style, the company refuses to aim low. The Rep takes on Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, often called the greatest American musical of all.
It is summer in turn-of-the-century New England when dreamy Julie Jordan (Angela Ingersoll) meets carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Mark Womack). Their romance is doomed from the start; Billy is rough, hot-tempered and prone to violence, and detests the idea of being tied down. When Billy dies, leaving Julie pregnant and penniless, he is forced to reconcile with those he left behind in order to be at peace. It's a difficult, expansive story, driven mainly by the power of its music, but thanks to a strong cast under director Richard Corley, the Rep's Carousel achieves emotional depth.
As Carrie, Julie's best friend, Courtney Rioux is delightful, her lucent soprano shifting from poignancy to coy humor with ease. With stellar tenor Michael Aaron Lindner as Enoch Snow, Carrie and Enoch's duet "When the Children Are Asleep" has an unusual beauty mixed with its sweet humor.
Operatic baritone Mark Womack takes on the problematic role of Billy Bigelow. Womack's voice is rich and polished throughout its broad range, as is heard best in Billy's mercurial soliloquy ("My Boy Bill"). But Womack struggles with characterization, falling short of the swaggering charisma that is required to balance Billy's many flaws.
In the often underdeveloped role of Julie Jordan, Chicago actress Angela Ingersoll is brilliant. It is a difficult role to make sympathetic - Julie tells us that it is possible for a man to hit you and for it not to hurt at all, an assertion that is hard to swallow in any era - but Ingersoll's performance is such a riveting fusion of fragility and strength that we believe she can survive unhurt. The love story of Julie and Billy floats on this delicately nuanced performance.
The Rep has wisely opted for a six-piece orchestra (positioned unobtrusively at the back of the Playhouse's round stage) over a stiff pre-recorded accompaniment. Cast members are not amplified by microphones, and the resulting blend of orchestra and singers is warm, intimate and alive. Choral moments like the concluding "You'll Never Walk Alone" showcase cast and orchestra at their best. Choreography by Maureen Janson, though strictly confined by the size of the stage, further enlivens the score.
While the pared-down set and orchestration are not what audiences have come to expect of golden-age musicals, the Rep's Carousel has a freshness and immediacy that grand-scale extravaganzas can seldom attain.