Beauty. In a word it describes the overriding and powerful feeling that pervaded Arizona Broadway Theatre’s (ABT) production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” last night during their opening performance of the company’s 11th year. Layering deeper shades of perspective, actress Jeannie Shubitz, who plays leading lady Julie in the show, visited with Examiner prior to the performance.
Arizona Broadway Theatre’s depiction of beauty shimmers on the surface in “Carousel.” Like a veneer that conceals what we’d prefer not to see, the sensory overload–through words, music, color and mood–worked powerfully on a number of levels, from the subtle to the overt.
A huge contributing element of last night’s beauty was in a set that is visually stunning. Deep warm tones backlit the stage, which displayed a rickety wooden dock that was simultaneously a carousel perimeter. Tall masts doubled as carousel tent poles as Billy Bigelow (Michael O’Brien) stood blackly silhouetted with his back to the crowd when the house lights dimmed and the live pit began the lush, waltzing overture.
The beautiful atmosphere re-doubled as the set was populated. Ornately carved vintage carousel horses were choreographed to gently revolve with period dressed children and young ladies atop the wooden steeds’ backs. That striking scene was accentuated by a stilted clown, a mime, a dancing fluffy-collared bear and more. It played like the gorgeous movie musicals of the 1950s.
“Carousel,” that Time Magazine in 1999 dubbed the Best Musical of the Twentieth Century, tells the decidedly un-fairy-tale of a headstrong, young lady, Julie, who falls in love with a proud, short-fused man, Billy, who has lost his job as a carousel barker. Just beneath the lovely surface, at the show’s heart, is their unvarnished love relationship of tension and uneasy feelings.
This is the second time Shubitz, who has Arizona roots but resides in New York, has ridden the ‘Carousel’ (so to speak) as Julie. “I see a lot more depth in Julie this time. She knows people intuitively, sees who they are,” Shubitz ventured. “She’s always giving, sometimes to her own detriment. But she sees every facet and loves entirely, doesn’t try to change the person she loves.”
The show last night felt at once historic and immediate, and–in every emotionally untidy moment, even amid dark, tangled exchanges–the embodiment of beauty. “If I Loved You,” the famous duet ballad of the couple’s first love scene characterized well their future. Accompanied by a breathtaking fall of gently floating apple blossoms, the loveliness was nonetheless tempered by the Billy’s unseemly judgments and swollen ego.
“My biggest challenge is Julie’s dynamic with Billy,” Shubitz suggested. “He is not always kind to her and is even abusive. That’s hard especially in modern day society, but it also is still very real, very present today. Never having been in that situation, I’d like to think I’d walk away. But Julie doesn’t.”
Julie doesn’t. And the lulling beauty of the evening’s music might at first seem an attempt to gloss over the unhealthy interaction. Plus, the sweeping score and mesmerizing balletic dance breaks were further colored by the evening’s energy and spunk. Jill-Christine Wiley as Julie’s best friend, Carrie Pipperidge had sparkle and pizzazz that drew deserved attention like a magnet. Her charisma only grew when beau Enoch Snow (played by Andy Meyers) added an endearing mix of humor and affection at her side.
The second act, comprised in large part of storytelling via dance (with some original steps right out of famous choreographer Agnes deMille’s playbook), drew on the same lively spunk, especially owing to Katy Sabo who played Billy and Julie’s daughter, Louise. Carrie and Enoch’s eight snooty children were adorably clad, staged and similarly choreographed, adding to the fun.
On flip side, Jigger, an evil-incarnate sailor who draws wayward Billy into his schemes was played wickedly well in the best conscienceless way by Brad Rupp. The ease with which the audience could label and condemn Jigger made it all the more heart-wrenching to watch what should have been a good love story go bad.
So, make no mistake. The beauty and fun made the lovers’ inappropriate behavior and contrary emotion stand out all the more. In sharp contrast to Mesa Encore Theatre’s (MET) production of the same show last year, ABT’s show was a sensitive tale of redemption. In a thoughtfully considered, raw and dark telling, MET very poignantly communicated that violence is not OK. …That abuse scars, and once you have known it ‘you’ll never walk alone.’ Without minimizing that critical message, Arizona Broadway Theatre dared investigate another intricate layer in the complex web of human relationships.
“Carousel’s beauty is that it lives in the real,” Shubitz said, her words feeling heavy-hearted in their soft spoken delivery. “The unpolished truth challenges audiences. It’s not simple. We don’t just walk away. Even when we should.”
Bearing witness to the complexities, Director Stephen Casey’s cast danced and sang with their hearts on their sleeves. Walking a fine line, Julie’s girlfriends supported her heart- driven authenticity without condoning the relationship. That is, for instance, they witnessed Billy’s bullying and how he disregards and degrades Julie in the process. Then, reprising Julie’s ‘What’s the Use of Wonderin’ number, their lyrics foreshadowed doom while the beautiful melody and staging encircled their hurting friend.
“They’ve all seen. She begged him not to and he went anyway,” Shubitz described by way of demonstrating the shame and humiliation Julie endures. “Yet, they stand with her and they understand.”
In a show whose fame is derived from the uplifting message that we never walk alone, Shubitz’s portrayal of unconditional love forced those surrounding her, audience included, to bare the heavy burden of supporting someone we love in the face of neither understanding nor accepting their behaviors. We want to rescue her. Yet Shubitz maintains that the complicated reflection of reality is directly tied to the show’s allure.
“Carousel gets down into the dirt, into the pain,” Shubitz assured about the story’s beauty, “because it’s so much harder not to walk away.”