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by on 26 April 2023

What Goes Round


by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

TOpS Musical Company at Hampton Hill Theatre until 29th April

Review by Mark Aspen

What goes round comes around.  Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical together, Oklahoma! was such a rip-roaring success that they immediately decided to get their teeth into a follow-up.  When Carousel opened on Broadway two years later in April 1945 it was an even greater success.

They had seen a translation from the Hungarian of Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom, and thought they would give it a spin as the basis for Carousel.   Liliom was a very popular play around the years of the First World War.  Liliom means “daisy”, an Hungarian slang term for a chancer, and the name of the primary character, a barker touting for customers for a fairground carousel.  It is said that Puccini approached Molnár with a view to making it into an opera, but Molnár thought it was too tragic.  He could not have seen many Puccini operas! … or musicals, because Oscar Hammerstein had better luck with the suggestion of a musical. 

Rodgers and Hammerstein picked up on the symbolisms and ironies of the carousel image, and Molnár’s overarching theme of the potential of love to overcome everything, and set it as a piquant centre to a musical filled with business, colour and indeed joy, in effect drawing the sting of the tragedy.

TOpS’s magnificent production has all of this busy-ness (particularly in its choreography), all of the colour (look at the costumes), and all of its joy in its exuberant singing, energetic acting and exciting dancing.   However, it does not fail to hit on poignancies, ironies or cruelties that form the undercurrents: witness how a very animated audience, full of first-night effervescence, can fall variously attentively silent or quietly moved.

The set evokes the 1893 fishing community in Maine with a sophisticated simplicity.  Although occasionally the cast bring on boxes and planks for makeshift furniture, the stage is kept largely bare, except for the judicious and highly effective use of misting, lit by Andy James lighting design.   It is dominated, but not overwhelmed, by projections onto the cyclorama.  The artwork forming the backdrop to each scene, various locations with the New England coast a constant presence, and each given a hint of fantastical whimsy, is executed brilliantly.  In one scene a second moving overlay has the sea lapping the beach.  Ian Stark is credited with the projection design amongst other contributors to Tom Daniel’s design concept.  The cyc is crossed diagonally by a sloping walkway hidden behind a fence of palings, which gives multiple levels.

Carousel famously opens with a dumbshow, acting out the immediate backstory, here augmented with light-footed dancing, juggling and ribbon poi, transforming into maypole festivities.   This prologue also showcases the orchestral prologue, including the well-known Carousel Waltz.  (It’s a devil of an ear-worm.)  TOpS musicians, under the baton of musical director Matthew Harcourt, excel right from the beginning and throughout the show.  Who could have thought that a dozen strong band could produce such rich all-round sound?  How many instruments have they got hidden away in their unseen wings salon? 

There is quite a Cecil B deMille epic cast too, 43 performers augmented by two children’s casts of 11 each, yet the smallish stage never seems cluttered and is used with intelligence by choreographer Charlie Brooker.  Chorus dances have a seemingly spontaneous energy, and all dance as one, never lacking in rhythm or place, whereas solos have outbursts of measured spontaneity.  Remarkably, with such a big cast, there is no weak link in their concatenated acting, singing and dancing.  Nevertheless, each is an individual character.

The principal role of the fairground barker, Billy Bigelow, is taken by Guillaume Borkhataria, whose swarthy looks and jaunty demeanour suit the character to a tee, but he makes Billy very much three dimensional, a lost soul rather than an unredeemable bad man.  Here is an individual wrestling with his own frustrations, who hits out, often literally as his only response, fuelled by a quick-tempered impatience.  Yet he genuinely loves Julie and their unborn child whom he is never to see in life.  Borkhataria’s singing voice is smooth and powerful, manifest in numbers such as Soliloquy, when he learns that Julie is pregnant, looking forward to a son and then realising the possibility of daughter, reflecting that “you’ve got to be a father to a girl”; then later in his ultimate defiance, The Highest Judge of All

We get an insight into the essence of Billy Bigelow in his duet with Julie Jordan, beautifully executed with Ellie Goddard.  It is love at first sight as their eyes meet across a crowded … fairground.   They sing If I Love You, accurately expressing the uncertainty of first discovery.  Goddard portrays perfectly the steadfast Julie, willing even at the start to give up everything for him (and he for her); her loyalty, even when she is his wife and he abuses her; and her defence of him in spite of all.  Clearly attitudes to wife-beating have changed since 130 years ago.   “He’s your feller and you love him”, is her answer in What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?, the only real solo that Julie gets, which is a pity as Goddard’s voice is a pleasure to hear.  However, it is in the If I Love You duet with Borkhataria that they both excel in singing and in acting, enhanced by a subtle fly-drop of blossom that adds to the delight of the moment.  

Things move quickly for this couple, and in one and a bit scenes, they have both lost their jobs because of their mutual commitment.  Billy’s boss is the hard-edged widow Mrs Mullin, who ostensibly sacks Billy for daring to “soil the good name of my carousel”.  As her barker he attracts plenty of young women to the fairground, but in truth she fancies him herself.  Fiona Stark plays Mrs Mullin with enormous explosive gusto.  She clearly enjoys the role and her slanging match with the rogue of the show, Jigger Craigin is priceless: both have a great line in well-honed insults.  Julie’s boss Mr Bascombe has a more altruistic approach but again has an eye on the good name of his fabric mill.  Simon Burges makes a genial and avuncular Mr Bascombe, who insists that his young lady millworkers are in the dormitory of the mill each evening.

The subplot of Julie’s friend Carrie Pipperidge and her fiancé Enoch Snow is a lighter mirroring of the main plot.  Carrie has made what their mum’s would have called a “sensible” choice.  Becky Silverstein makes a charming, bright-eyed Carrie and has a great singing voice, clear and lightly decorated.  Her delightful rendering of Mister Snow speaks volumes about Carrie (and about Enoch Snow).  She obviously loves Enoch and love is blind, but thankfully she has made that “sensible” choice.

Sam Sugarman makes a superb Enoch Snow, a character who appears a mouse but roars like a lion, dapper and fastidious, but plucky and principled.  Snow is a small man with big ambitions, a fisherman whose one boat will become a fleet and his mooring a canning factory; and a big family with Carrie.  His dreams, though, all come true (sadly unlike Julie and Billy’s).   All this is spelt out in his delightful song When the Children Are Asleep, which Sugarman sings with glee.  He is a performer who knows exactly the right balance, of humour and pride, courage and discretion.  His comic timing is spot on; even his first appearance brought laughter from an audience, whom he then carried with him.

Billy Bigelow’s nemesis is Jigger Craigin, a scoundrel first-class, cold ruthless calculating.  His violent and unprincipled nature leads inexorably to Billy’s downfall with a nail-biting inevitability.  David Shortland grabs this role by the throat in a robust performance suffused with menace.  His gravelly voice underlines the character’s harshness.   But unlike the devil, Jigger gets only a few of the best tunes (although Carousel is packed with them), like the forceful Stonecutters Cut It on Wood, with company backing, and the stout and sturdy Blow High, Blow Low, which also shows off the skills, dancing and singing, of the Male Chorus.

This contrasts with the sweetness of the Female Chorus in numbers such as the reprise of Mister Snow and the lyrical What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?.  They form striking tableaux that exhibit, amongst other things, the skills and hard work of costume designer Elizabeth Dennis and her large team of wardrobe coordinators.

Central to the chorus work is the character Nettie Fowler, Julie’s cousin who takes her under her wing when she loses her job in the Bascombe mill, typified in leading numbers such as the well-known June Is Bustin’ Out All Over or the company number This Was a Real Nice Clambake at the joyous crux of the plot, before the mood reverses.  All the fishing village join in a festive bring-and-share of traditionally cooked (over dried seaweed apparently) shellfish.   Incidentally, but not being a conchologist this could be wrong, don’t the shells look rather more like scallops than cockle-shelled clams?

Alex Alderson is an enthusiastic and dynamic Nettie Fowler, with a graceful yet powerful singing voice, which features most in the iconic You’ll Never Walk Alone, sang at the climax of the show when the naturalistic interpretation of the story flips into a surreal coda, when Billy’s arrival “Up There” puts him literally amongst the stars, while his judgement is held in abeyance under the tutelage of the Starkeeper.   Or should it be Stark-eeper, since the role is played by the Carousel veteran Ian Stark.  Now here is a performer who always appears calm and confident (on stage at least) and fits ideally into the role of this benevolent and generous, if enigmatic, character.    We first see him on a ladder, in a speckled waistcoat, placing stars in the firmament (a staging that originated, it is said, from an argument between Rodgers and Hammerstein).  The rich-voiced Stark also doubles as Dr Seldon, the villagers’ popular GP, and he is there with the fishermen too.

When Billy is granted a redemptive visit back “Down Here” he gets the opportunity to see his now teenaged daughter, Louise.   The ballet sequence Billy Makes a Journey, tells of the tough life Louise has led and her current unhappiness.  The multi-talented Australian dancer, Rosie Duthie performs the narrative ballet with grace and conviction, as well as signing the opening solo of the finale.  The beautifully choreographed dance brings in a corps of dancers, with a number of male and female solos, together with two the versatile children’s ensembles.  The children all rise impeccably to the occasion as the Snow’s Children and various urchins and other parts throughout the musical.

There is a lot in this musical and its director, the TOpS stalwart T.J Lloyd, has brought this multi-faceted show into an amazingly integrated work of art.  The whole company had the opening night performance zinging with energy, pushing themselves to a limit that one can be sure with extend throughout its sadly too short run.   This Carousel is quite a merry-go-round of talents, which the audience loved right up to its tear-jerking end that was worthy of a Puccini opera.

A year’s worth of work has gone into this production, and its rewards are well worthy of it.

What goes round has come around. 

Mark Aspen, April 2023

Photography by Tom Daniels Photography 

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