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They’ll Never Walk Alone: "Carousel," at the Green Room through December 9 PDF Print E-mail
Theatre - Reviews
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 05 December 2007 02:43

Nicole Freitag and Eddie Staver III in Carousel When you attend the Green Room's re-imagining of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel - and I'm trusting that you will attend this altogether glorious production - the first thing likely to catch your eye is the playing area's bucolic backdrop, its pastoral simplicity only tarnished by an off-center, crudely drawn Nazi swastika. A flip to the back page of Carousel's program finds director Derek Bertelsen devoting three paragraphs to the World War II ghetto of Theresienstadt. And when the show's actors dolefully enter the stage, they're wearing muted grays offset only by yellow Stars of David. Yes, you realize, this Carousel is set in a German concentration camp.

I can't begin to describe just how miserably this concept could, and should, have failed. Bertelsen's conceit finds a company of Jewish theatre artisans performing - as actual Theresienstadt prisoners were forced to - for an audience of visiting international agencies à la the Red Cross; at best, one would think, this presentational choice could have appeared unconscionably naïve, and at worst, morally reprehensible. Yet you quickly, and relievedly, discover that nothing about Bertelsen's approach, or his ensemble's handling of it, will be exploitive. Bertelsen and his remarkable septet of actors treat the concept with the utmost gravity, dignity, and empathy, and - in a miraculous surprise - do so without sacrificing the joy inherent in their source material. The production, even with its bare-bones cast and design, is still Carousel. Yet it's also so much more.

Admittedly, it takes several minutes for your initial misgivings to subside. Though the musical opens with a lovely mime-show introduction to the characters under the strains of Rodgers' & Hammerstein's prelude (and enough can't be said about pianist Tyson W. Danner's superb playing of Carousel's score), when the actors first speak, their distinctly American, modern-day readings and body language don't suggest the period, or Europeans, much at all - you may find yourself shuddering at the thought of two-plus hours of Holocaust dress-up.

Watch the ensemble members, though, after they leave the playing area. When they're not enacting characters in Carousel's romantic tragedy, Bertelsen has his performers sit on the side of the stage in full view of the audience, and instantly, they are their tormented Jewish counterparts. Some gaze miserably at their feet, some stare forlornly into space, yet wherever their attention lies, it's not on the action occurring directly in front of them. Expressing heartache and terror with nearly painful nuance, the actors are lost in their own, private reveries, and when they get up to return to the musical - or to join Danner in providing accompaniment - they do so in speedy, businesslike bursts of movement; the characters' subtext is clear: Do your job, do it when you're supposed to, or suffer the consequences.

Nicole Freitag and Eddie Staver III in Carousel Once you recognize the dichotomy between the on-stage world of Rodgers & Hammerstein and the off-stage world of Theresienstadt, you realize how unimportant the cast's portrayal of "believable" Europeans is here. The stage is the one place where these Jewish prisoners can evade their reality and be someone, and somewhere, else, and this frees you to accept the modern readings and gestures as just another form of play-acting - of escape. Only at rare moments do the worlds converge - as when Nicole Freitag's Julie breaks down in aching sobs after informing Billy Bigelow (Eddie Staver III) of her pregnancy - and when they do, they're gut-wrenching; you wouldn't want more of them.

All of this might make the Green Room's Carousel sound tough to sit through, but the exact opposite is true; the show is exhilarating. Freitag and Cara Chumbley, who plays Carrie, both act and sing with almost translucent grace and honesty, and Jackie Madunic is a thrillingly robust, vital presence capable of acutely detailed emotionalism. Chris Walljasper (who also plays guitar and trombone here) provides an invigorating, appropriately seedy Jigger, while Michael Tallon (a first-rate violinist) is an effortlessly fine Mr. Bascombe and Enoch Jr. And Tristan Tapscott - whose vocals are staggering - offers another sterling interpretation in a career filled with them; his Enoch Snow is devastatingly funny and touching. Staver, meanwhile, is an absolute marvel, registering meanness, passion, and regret with exceptional, underplayed panache. Even the high notes that are just outside Staver's vocal range work in his favor, as they mirror the cracks in Billy's armor - his desperate desire to be something more than he is.

Musically, in truth, this Carousel could hardly be bettered (on Friday, I was amazed at how much I didn't miss a huge Rodgers & Hammerstein chorus), and some of the harmonies are downright extraordinary; if you can get through the climactic "You'll Never Walk Alone" without crying, you're made of stronger stuff than I. What adds to that finale, though, is the haunted ache and almost tangible sense of loss in the characters' eyes - the notion that this might, indeed, be the last song they ever sing. Bertelsen and company haven't merely done justice to Carousel, but to the entire notion of what theatre can mean; it's quite possibly the show of the year.


For tickets, call (309) 786-5660.

Comments (3)Add Comment
written by schqc, December 07, 2007
I wish I could see the show. I have absolutely no time to do so.

It fascinates me that there might be a way this would NOT be exploitative.
Using an event like the holocaust to bump up the emotional jolt of your Rodgers and Hammerstein would have to tread carefully.

Is there a "statement" being made about the holocaust?

It would be better, strangely enough, I think to switch it. Have the show done as Nazis performing it.

Its just...with millions dead in the camps, would they want to remembered so? Is one "bandying" about with a devastating moment in history?

I would love to see it, to see if my thoughts could be addressed, but I have absolutely no time (heck, if I had the time, I would have auditioned for it).

Your review doesn't fill me in quite enough, so I will ask: Did the use of the holocaust serve some just purpose, or was it just an "interesting backdrop"?

written by jturner, December 07, 2007
This really sounds like an interesting take, and, as a member of the Prenzie Players, I'm constantly exposed to new and exciting ways of seeing traditional materials.

One thing DOES bother me, though. If the Jews are performing the piece in the concentration camp, then who are we, the audience? Nazis? Good Germans? that's a "hot seat" I don't think I feel like sitting in.
written by Derek Bertelsen, December 10, 2007
Thanks so much for your comment. I wish you could have see the production, as I’m pretty sure it would have answered some, if not all, of the questions you brought up.

I would never use the atrocities of the Holocaust to “bump up” the emotion for any show. The emotion just happens because the actors are human. In rehearsals and performances, there were times in which the actors become overwhelmed with emotion and times they didn't. That’s what makes real theatre. The performances were not contrived - they were natural – and that’s what makes for an amazing theatrical experience.

The research I did for the production was extensive. In brief, Ferenc Molnar, who wrote the play “Liliom” which the play Carousel is based off of, was a Hungarian-born playwright and moved to New York in 1935, right as the Nazi Party was coming to power. While Molnar’s original 1909 production of “Liliom” was a dismal failure, the play received productions all over Europe in the 1930s and 40s – including Theresienstadt. Having some of the roles “played” by Nazis had crossed my mind, but that never happened historically in the world of Terezin.

I have no clue if those that perished during the Holocaust would want to be remembered this way, but had many audience members come up to me after performances and say they didn’t even know things like this went on. If our production opened the eyes of one individual over the course of two weekends of performances, I feel we have done our job.

I do feel confident that our production served a purpose, all while staying true to the Rodgers score and Hammerstein text. As a director, I think it’s my job to make sure that today’s theatre has a direct relation to today’s audiences. The original production of Carousel was written in a different time for a different audience. Audiences in 2007 are different than those in 1945 (when Carousel opened in New York). Bottom line, I wish you could have seen the production. I am extremely proud of it.

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