Paper Mill Playhouse - Millburn, NJ - June 2001

Review by John Kenrick

Did you feel that warm breeze on June 1st? It wasn't a change in the weather; it was the ghosts of Rodgers and Hammerstein breathing a sigh of satisfaction. After more than fifty years, their beloved Carousel is still leaving audiences cheering through their tears. Only its not on Broadway – its in New Jersey.

When it comes to reviving a classic musical, no one can beat the folks at Paper Mill Playhouse – no, not even Broadway. Paper Mill's creative team doesn't just bring their extraordinary talent to these gems; they bring a genuine passion for musical theater. So it is no surprise that their revival of Carousel is swept with magic. If you love this show, you're going to adore this ravishing new production.

Director Robert Johanson and his creative team know that the best way to handle a masterpiece is to give it a first class presentation and let it speak on its own terms. They also got the R&H estates to allow the restoration of lost verses and couplets in several songs, a real plus for musical buffs. Gregory A. Poplyk's colorful costumes and Michael Anania's handsome sets bring 19th Century New England to vivid theatrical life, all enhanced by F. Mitchell Dana's evocative lighting. And their enchanting vision of heaven has "The Starkeeper" floating about in a Ferris wheel gondola, polishing the mirrored stars.

Their grandest stage effect occurs when the carousel appears during the opening waltz. The lights dim, the horses appear as if from nowhere, and everything onstage starts spinning as mirrored balls fill the auditorium with swirling light. This genuine "coup de theatre" had the opening night audience first gasping, then cheering.

Agnes DeMille's work on the original production made great dance an essential part of Carousel's appeal. This time, the acclaimed Robert La Fosse is on hand to provide wonderful new choreography, particularly for the extended ballet in Act Two. While his dances show some loving signs of his years working with Jerome Robbins, the final product is highly original and captures the spirit of the material perfectly. I hope we see more of his work on the musical stage in the future.

But of course, the true key to Carousel's power lies in its characters. The wondrous Christiane Nollis a riot as Carrie Pipperidge, and handsome Brandon Jovanovich is easily the best Mr. Snow I have ever seen – as in last season's Student Prince, these two have a delightful onstage chemistry. Marsha Bagwell is adorable as Nettie, making even the maudlin "When You Walk Through a Storm" genuinely moving. Jeb Brown gives the hateful Jigger slimy style, and Betsy Craig is the first actress I've ever seen bring real dimension to the frustrated Mrs. Mullin.

Veteran stage and screen comedian Eddie Bracken is an endearing Starkeeper. Opening night marked his 15,000th performance on a professional stage. That's the equivalent of 36 years without a night off! I am happy to report he marked this astounding milestone looking great and radiating good humor. Three cheers, Mr. Bracken!

Matt Bogart, one of the most breathtaking hunks in theater today, is not only dramatically moving as the brooding Billy Bigelow – he also sings like nobody's business. (See, Lincoln Center? It can be done!) When he and the wonderful Glory Crampton sing "If I Loved You," you'll understand why I (and many others) think its one of the finest songs any musical has ever known. Together, Bogart and Crampton bring out the pain and the passion of these tortured lovers. When Billy returned to reprise "If I Loved You" in Act Two, I was a little embarrassed to find myself sobbing . . . until I realized practically everyone around me was sniffling and weeping up a storm. Now that's how to do R&H!

Some of my city-bound friends have gotten tired of hearing me tell them to get over themselves and get out to Papermill – and those who've broken down and gone out there have fallen in love with the place. So seeing as June is bustin' out all over, treat yourself Paper Mill's Carousel. Or aren't you in the mood to be ravished a bit?

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