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.
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.