The “if” in “Carousel’s” famous “If I Loved You” smolders with tension in the Olney Theatre Center’s big, thoughtful, musically rich production. In the muscular Tally Sessions, director Jason Loewith has found an emotionally combustible and powerfully voiced Billy Bigelow, the carnival barker with a deadly nose for trouble — but, of course, even this hair-trigger Billy doesn’t scare the curious Julie Jordan. As played and gorgeously sung by Carey Rebecca Brown, Julie has understated allure: She’s simple yet mysterious and unflappably composed.
That’s a good way to think of this lovingly traditional and intelligent staging. Led by Sessions and Brown, the large cast of sensitive actor-singers is almost always terrific with the sumptuous Rodgers and Hammerstein score, and the 12-piece orchestra (including harp, with strings glowingly anchored by bass and cello) is the biggest the Olney has ever had.
A dozen instrumentalists won’t impress folks who prefer their “Carousel” symphony-sized, of course, and this show’s second act ballet won’t be the envy of legit dance troupes. Yet the 70-year-old musical looks sharp here, and, critically, it nearly always feels right. Loewith and musical director Christopher Youstra rush nothing, and a long ovation greets Dorea Schmidt (crackerjack as Carrie Pipperidge, Julie’s lively friend) once she finally winds up the long, dreamy number “Mister Snow.” Schmidt is surprisingly funny, but it is her full-bodied singing that seals the deal. It plainly thrills a crowd hungry for this confident, velvet-glove handling of both the acting and the music, a standard that is robustly led by Sessions and Brown.
Sessions has a kind of shine to him that allows his Billy to be chesty and rough while revealing glimmers of whatever it is that Julie is attracted to — that slim thread of Billy’s tenderness that only she seems able to catch. (Sessions is on his way to Broadway’s “School of Rock,” so he will be replaced by Cooper Grodin on April 29.) Brown’s Julie is calm and intrigued as Sessions romps around, and their wary but sizzling chemistry is established for good during the time-stopping “If I Loved You.” Coming right after Schmidt’s entertaining “Mister Snow,” you’re sold on the show for good.
Loewith covers his bases pretty well, so the only time buyer’s remorse kicked in during Saturday night’s official opening were the instances when microphones went dead (a glitch that shouldn’t happen at this level) and the few fleeting moments when the roustabout humor and masculine bellowing fly overboard. If you’re looking for a “fix” to the musical’s notorious problem — that Billy beats Julie, who forgivingly explains that violence to her teenage daughter Louise in a way that is hard for us to accept — you’ll be disappointed.
Tally Sessions as Billy Bigelow and Carey Rebecca Brown as Julie Jordan in “Carousel.” (Stan Barouh)
But Loewith doesn’t run from this thorny matter, either, and you can tell the team has thought it through and opted neither to radically reframe the moment nor to gratuitously undermine it. Loewith trusts us to deal with “Carousel’s” complications.
Milagros Ponce de León’s clever set features a spinning carousel under the elevated orchestra, with video projections that help unwind time as the doomed Billy goes through his frustrating paces — falling for Julie, losing his job, banging around with the no-good Jigger Craigin (a surly Chris Genebach), slowly trying to find himself. The stage is open for the cast of two dozen to swirl through Tommy Rapley’s opening choreography and for a heroic J. Morgan White and a feisty Maya Brettell to perform their slow-starting but eventually persuasive second act ballet as Carnival Boy and Louise. The Olney keeps stretching with its musicals — bigger! more challenging! better discipline! — and from last season’s jubilant lark “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” to this rewardingly sober show, the results look and sound more toned all the time.