Carousel isn't meant to be blithely uplifting, and the version being staged by the Living Room and the Kansas City Repertory Theatre isn't. But it's a happy collaboration, freshening the work without diluting its essential toughness.
First produced two years ago by the downtown Living Room Theatre, this Carousel remains stark and sensual. It's in a larger venue, but the Rep has made itself smaller, replicating the Living Room's signature intimacy and casual atmosphere in the Spencer Theatre. Director Kyle Hatley, the Rep's associate artistic director (who also appears in the show, uncredited), has created a theater-in-the-round that puts little distance between audience and actors.
Rodgers and Hammerstein based Carousel on the 1909 play Liliom, by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar, but gave the story a more hopeful ending for American audiences of the mid-1940s. The musical's original setting is late-1800s Maine, a time and place that give context to the dated attitudes toward women. This production is purposely imprecise about its era, but it's still one dominated by divisions of class and hard economics. And it's still a mostly sad work, though its upbeat tunes and comic relief make dusk of what otherwise would be midnight.
In an effect that underscore's the material, lots of filament light bulbs hang low over the stage so that actors can manipulate them as they enter and exit. (At the start, the rhythmic on-and-off of the bulbs makes a tuneless overture.) At first distracting, the device ultimately melds with the harshness of the love story at the play's center, the romance between carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Rusty Sneary) and millworker Julie Jordan (Mollie Denninghoff).
The flawed but charismatic Billy has a talent for luring customers — especially women — to the carousel. For them and for him, the merry-go-round is an escape from life's hard realities, a feeling of what a better life might be like. But what initially draws Julie and Billy together isn't completely clear at first. Did you like it when he talked to you today/When he put you on the carousel that way? sings Julie's friend Carrie (Liz Clark Golson) in "You're a Queer One, Julie Jordan." Julie responds: I'd rather not say.
Like Billy, Julie keeps her thoughts to herself. The two explore their attraction in an earnest but guarded "If I Loved You," yet when they sacrifice their jobs to be together, the decision seems to come as much from stubbornness as from longing. But it's in keeping with their story, one that's fated by a tragic inability to get through to each other.
Sneary, the Living Room's artistic director, makes a commanding Billy. His work here is mesmerizing — edgy and raw. We may not like this troubled man, but we feel something for him — helping us understand Julie's devotion to him, and why his former boss at the carousel, Mrs. Mullin (Natalie Liccardello), another outlier, also wants him.
Julie finds some solace with her cousin Nettie (Katie Gilchrist), who leads a vibrant "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" with the chorus (the song is an abrupt break in continuity in the middle of Act 1), as well as a tissue-grabbing "You'll Never Walk Alone." In contrast to Julie's situation is her friend Carrie's more fortunate circumstance with Mr. Snow (Matthew McAndrews), an ambitious fisherman with whom she's in love. Carrie's character brings needed humor to the show, but her side story also serves to emphasize Julie's hardship. But life isn't perfect for her, either. A girl who's in love with any man is doomed to weep and wail, Carrie and the townswomen sing in "Stonecutters Cut It on Stone."
When Billy learns that Julie is pregnant, he finally reveals his feelings in "Soliloquy." (Sneary's rendition is both poignant and athletic.) But impending fatherhood drives him to go in on a moneymaking scheme with his friend Jigger (Nick Uthoff), a whaler whose dangerous reputation is justified. Jigger plays on the vulnerabilities of others, including Billy, whose fateful decision affects his daughter, Louise (Daria LeGrand). Yet she, in turn, offers him a chance at redemption.
Hatley has gathered a strong, talented local cast, including some members of the 2011 Living Room show, a 24-member chorus, and brief appearances by Gary Neal Johnson and Charles Fugate. The stage is sometimes crowded, but Hatley, choreographer Steven Eubank and scene designers Sneary, Gary Mosby and William R. Shinoski make efficient use of the limited square footage. It's a lively production, with simple musical accompaniment onstage (Eryn Bates on piano, with Sean Hogge occasionally on guitar) and excellent performances.
Carousel doesn't deliver a completely happy conclusion, but the ride is absorbing, the reality it creates an escape of its own.