When Katie Davis finishes singing her beautiful rendition of “If I Loved You” midway through the first act of the Lee Playhouse’s current production of “Carousel,” audiences may understand why the musical theater giants Rodgers and Hammerstein considered this show their personal favorite among their many collaborations.
Stephen Sondheim, himself a Broadway powerhouse, once noted that while Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” was about a picnic, their next show, “Carousel,” was about life and death. While the story does have lofty aspiration, at its simplest “Carousel” is the tale of a wrong-side-of-the-tracks carousel barker and an innocent factory worker caught up in a bitter romance played out against the backdrop of a rough coastal town in 19th century Maine.
Director Tony Sharpenstein, best known to Fort Lee audiences for his big-grinned portrayals of many an Oscar and Hammerstein lead on the Playhouse stage, brings that same sunny, “corn-in-Kansas” touch to a show that might have benefited from a slightly darker, edgier approach.
The ladies on the stage are the ones responsible for most of this show’s pleasures. Davis, in the role of Julie, brings an aching vulnerability to the role of a lonely young woman who reaches out to a most unlikely candidate for love.
Davis’ exquisite voice is matched in its beauty only by the voice of Anita Sharpenstein, who shines in the role of Carrie.
Always a vibrant presence onstage, Sharpenstein is perhaps at her best during the show’s more quiet moments.
For example, with a simple tug on a shawl wrapped around her shoulders she is able to transport the audience to a leisurely clambake on a chilly beach.
Chris Hester has a few nice moments, but fairs less well in the role of Billy. Perhaps his boyish looks are to blame, but it is hard to imagine this otherwise capable performer as a cocky, charismatic man whose inner chaos erupts outwardly in violence.
Credit Peter Rizzuto in the role of Jigger with bringing real menace and rough-hewn swagger to the production. His character’s slyly comic attempt at seduction is one of the highlights of the second act. David Atkins brings a strong voice to the show and is pitch perfect as the self-important, nose-to-the-grindstone Mr. Snow. Playhouse veteran Kym Mincks refines her initially cartoonish “Wicked-Witch-of-the-West” portrayal of Mrs. Mullen into something more subtle and much more interesting. Her slightly seedier, hard-edged manipulator contrasts well Julie’s more delicate, soft-spoken beauty.
The final mention must go to Natalia Hester. Dancing about the stage like a beautiful sprite, she brought an innocent exuberance that carries the audience through the thick sentimental soup that closes the show. Beautifully detailed costumes, a lush, classic score and some fine performances will make “Carousel” an enjoyable experience for fans of Rogers and Hammerstein.
“Carousel” continues at the Lee Playhouse Friday and Saturday, May 18, 19, 25 and 26, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 20 and 27, 3 p.m.
Ticket prices are $12 for adults and $6 for youth younger than 16. Group rates are available for 12 or more.
For reservations and details, call the Lee Playhouse at (804) 734-6629.