Carousel was the first show Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote after their smash debut, Oklahoma! They had clearly had enough of sunshine, happiness, and straw-hatted zest for living. Carousel conspicuously lacks an exclamation point.
Evidently, the great musical-theater team set out to write a show about characters you wouldn’t normally root for. They include a dim-witted carnival barker who quits his job so he can hook up with a small-town mill girl (who loses her job for hooking up with the barker). Domestic abuse, pregnancy, and suicide follow, as does a clambake. The ending doesn’t make any sense at all. Every man who beats his wife gets his own star in the sky, or something? It resists unpacking.
This is a 5th Avenue Theatre production, so a few things are givens: The singers (especially Billie Wildrick and Laura Griffith) are fantastic. So are the Spectrum Dance Theater dancers and Donald Byrd’s choreography.
The show, however, is a pre-feminist oddity with a lot to admire, enjoy, and be perplexed by. It made more sense only when I went home and read that Carousel is based on a much darker Hungarian melodrama called Liliom (1909) that Rodgers and Hammerstein tried to make not quite so depressing at the end. They were moderately successful. I can’t get the songs out of my head.