One of the first scenes in the musical "Carousel" is a fight; one of the last scenes is a fight. In between these tense high points is a vast theatrical sea, broken by the occasional rousing or touching moment, but dominated by uninspiring busyness. The version of the classic 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein show currently playing at the Barksdale Theatre has a highly talented cast that almost makes sitting through the nearly three-hour performance worth it. Almost, but not quite. The first fight erupts between carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Matt Nowosielski) and his boss, Mrs. Mullen (Jacqueline Jones), when he comes to the defense of poor millworker Julie Jordan (Debra Wagoner). Mrs. Mullen subsequently fires Billy, setting the stage for an unconventional courtship between the ex-barker and Julie. Before long, they're married and expecting, but still down on their luck. An ultimately fatal act of desperation sends Billy to heaven where he is given an opportunity to redeem himself. The final fight flares up between Billy and his now-teen-age daughter, Louise (Emma Orelove), as he tries to give her a last chance at happiness. Nowosielski does a fine job embodying the gruff and temperamental Billy, his chest thrust out in a perpetual state of indignation. But Wagoner is the real attraction here, her lovely voice a perfect complement to her guileless good looks. What a shame it is then that, in the meandering first act, she doesn't have a chance to truly shine. Not until the second act showstopper, "What's the Use of Wond'rin," do we get to see the extent of her talent. In fact, Petrina Jones as Julie's best friend, Carrie, and Thom Moore as Carrie's fiancée are allowed to show a greater range of skills than either of the leads. Their duet on "Geraniums in the Winder" is an engaging first-act interlude. Joe Pabst is another secondary player who proves his mettle with his snarling portrayal of Jigger Craigin, the hoodlum who propels Billy toward his tragic demise. As usual, director Jack Cummings III keeps his ensemble players busy. In last year's "Violet" at the Barksdale, the active ensemble enhanced the action. But the stage chores that the "Carousel" chorus performs just add length to their scenes. An early transition, in which fishermen meticulously align and realign benches only to finally stack them up, is one of many examples. The director does somewhat better in the second act, effectively wrangling the dozen-or-so children that act as Billy's heavenly helpers. But even the kids are given almost interminable amounts of stage business to do, stretching their cute-factor to the breaking point. Cummings' reduction of the full-orchestra sound of "Carousel" to the scale of a string-quintet proves to be a worthwhile risk. But, while the re-orchestrations work well, the performance I attended was plagued by violins jarringly out of tune, distracting from my enjoyment of familiar favorites like "June is Bustin' Out All Over." Perhaps that is a more general problem with this production: Ideas that looked good on paper didn't come together in performance. Whatever the case, this is one "Carousel" that goes around and around far too long and never quite gets anywhere.
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