A new spin on Rodgers and Hammerstein ; Innovative director takes a fresh, simple, surrealistic approach.

Posted June 14, 2011

The Kansas City Star

I’m a sucker for wild theatrical imaginations, and at the moment nobody in town has a wilder imagination than director Kyle Hatley.

Hatley, the associate artistic director of Kansas City Repertory Theatre, is someone to watch closely. Whether directing his idiosyncratic original plays for the Kansas City Fringe Festival or staging renegade revivals, Hatley sees possibilities in classic material that few other directors would.

Kyle Hatley (Kansas City Star)

Now he turns his attention to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” their dreamy, atmospheric, surrealistic adaptation of Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar’s “Liliom.” The R&H version shifts the action from Budapest to coastal Maine, with seafarers, fishermen and young women scraping by as mill workers. It’s a world of fleeting corporeal pleasures and small dreams.

Hatley doesn’t tinker with the writing or the music, but he certainly has his way with the show. This is experimental theater in the best sense. Not everything he attempts in this stripped-down version works, but when it clicks, we see the show in a whole new light. He’s made it even more surrealistic.

Staging it in the upstairs space at the Living Room, Hatley forgoes elaborate costuming and employs only limited theatrical lighting. A few chairs and tables are the only furniture, and the props don’t consist of much more than a couple of knives, a gun or two, a few buckets and plenty of cigarettes and beer cans.

The score is performed by pianist and musical director Eryn Preston, accompanied by guitarist Sean Hogge, who uses his electrified instrument to create surprising, nuanced colors. The most dramatic lighting effects come from multiple suspended naked lightbulbs with pull chains, which the actors use in creative ways throughout the show.

“Carousel” is really an ill-fated love story between carnival barker Billy Bigelow, played by Rusty Sneary, and mill-worker Julie Jordan, brought to life here by Molly Denninghoff. They meet and fall in love, but the circumstances cost him his job at the local carousel (Natalie Liccardello is memorably intense as Mrs. Mullin, the jealous carousel owner). Unemployed, he takes out his anger and frustration by slapping Julie around now and then and is finally talked into an ill-fated robbery attempt by his pal Jigger (Nick Uthoff) after he learns that Julie is pregnant.

Denninghoff is a fine singer and Sneary isn’t, but he anchors the show. Charming, brutish, infantile and grimly philosophical, Sneary plays Billy with gritty realism. The first time we hear his singing voice is in “If I Love You,” Billy’s haunting duet with Julie, and Sneary’s rough-around-the-edges vocals are perfectly consistent with his portrayal.

Ultimately Billy takes his own life in a botched robbery attempt and is transported to a strange version of the afterlife, where he meets the Starkeeper, a sort of heavenly bureaucrat played by Hatley. Billy exercises the option of returning to Earth for one day, where he sees his now 15-year-old daughter, Louise (the charismatic Daria LeGrand), who has inherited Billy’s short temper and her mother’s grace.

Billy reveals himself to Louise, pretending to be a friend of her father’s, and what begins as a joyful experience for Billy turns ugly when, out of frustration, he slaps her and then disappears from her view. That leads to the script’s most inexplicable and troublesome line when Julie tells her daughter that, yes, it is possible to be hit without it hurting at all. What appears to be an apology for domestic violence is a tough sell, to put it mildly.

Denninghoff plays Julie with a philosophical resignation, dealing with the world no matter how rough the road may be. As her cousin Nettie, Katie Gilchrist makes good use of her earthy presence, and she stops time with one of the show’s most famous songs. When Gilchrist dives into “You’ll Never Walk Alone” over the bleeding Billy and the grieving Julie, her throaty delivery and powerful vibrato — not to mention her emotional intensity — make this much-abused standard sound new again.

Uthoff’s effective turn as Jigger is a combination of boy-next-door and menacing brute. Sarah Goeke delivers a nice comic performance as Carrie, Julie’s impulsive friend, while Matthew McAndrews is her match as Mr. Snow, Carrie’s prim and proper husband-to- be. In smaller roles, Charles Fugate registers a vivid performance in brief strokes as Mr. Bascombe, while the vaunted Gary Neal Johnson appears at the very end of the piece as Dr. Seldon.

This is a gutsy rendition of a flawed classic, but it does what theater is supposed to do: It moves you and plants indelible images in your mind’s eye.

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© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources