Utah Repertory Theater Company’s “Carousel” at The Murray Theater

I had the opportunity to attend the Opening Night performance of the Utah Repertory Theater Company’s production of “Carousel” at The Murray Theater. The story centers around Carousel Barker Billy Bigelow played by Samuel Ross West and his soon to be wife Julie Jordon played by Amber Lee Roberts. Their interest in each other ultimately costs them each their jobs and Billy finds himself very unhappy and unfulfilled in his new life with Julie. That is until Billy learns he is about to be a father. At this point Billy finds himself pressured to provide for his unborn child. A robbery scheme is hatched by Billy and his friend Jigger Craigin played by Kyle Allen which ends in Billy’s death. Later Billy’s spirit comes back to help Julie and his now 15 year-old daughter Louise played by Elsa Hodder who are unhappy and unhopeful. A secondary plot line is also running between the couple of Carrie Pipperidge played by Mimi West and Mr. Enoch Snow played by Scott Cluff. Carrie works at the mill where Julie lost her job from and they remain lifelong friends, through their friendship we get to see the courtship and troubles that emerge between Carrie and Mr. Snow.

I have never attended a production at The Murray Theater before; finding parking at this theater is a huge issue so make sure you arrive 20-30 minutes before curtain. Utah Repertory Theater has a page dedicated to the allowed parking areas at The Murray Theater http://utahrep.org/murray-theater-parking; however be aware the street parking directly in front of the Post Office marked in green and allowed by this map is really not allowed, I found this out through a parking citation awaiting me on my windshield.

* EDITOR’S NOTE * Utah Repertory Theatre Company has since updated the map to reflect that you should not park in front of the Post Office and that Post Office parking is only available after the Post Office has closed.

Upon entering and hearing the live orchestra warm-up I could tell this theater has some interesting acoustical properties. This theater was built in 1938 and was initially used as a movie theater. I was surprised by how little sound traveled through the theater. This could have been partially the acoustics of the room or partially the sound system. From the majority of the cast all I was able to hear from the sound system was mid and low sounds, the result was at times performers sounded muffled, that made them difficult to hear and understand.

This was unfortunate as the singers in the production were among the best I have ever heard, I was unable to pick out anyone in the production that was weaker than others in the group. Music Director Melissa Thorne should be very proud of the work that she and the cast has done. The four leads Julie, Billy, Carrie and Mr. Snow were outstanding. I was also very impressed by the male ensemble and the amount of energy in the number “Blow High, Blow Low”. The other vocal stand out was “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sung by Nettie Fowler played by Serena Kanig Benish. This part is double cast so you may see a different performer in this role. Benish’s voice has a very nice operatic quality and she has remarkable control and accuracy with her instrument. I only wish she would have had a microphone on during Act I, at times it was difficult to hear and understand her in “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” but I will thrilled to see that she did have one for Act II.

Billy has a very important number, “Soliloquy,” at the end of Act I, which West just nailed. I can appreciate how much preparation and work went into a number of that length and one that is very demanding vocally. That performance will ensure that no one goes home at intermission. However I was a little dismayed at the way the cast exited the stage just after that to a reprise of “June is Bustin’ Out All Over.” It looked as if cast members were bumping into each other and no one knew who was going out first and a few of them looked like they did not know which way to go.

I always appreciate a live orchestra, as an orchestra director I know how hard it is to put together and rehearse a group such as this. I was surprised to see that the cast were expected to react to whatever the orchestra did, so just like a minus track only live. Instead of the orchestra accompanying the cast and being able to react to them. This did result in some inconsistent tempos between orchestra and performers in some numbers, but the cast quickly corrected this in a few measures, in my mind that is the job of the orchestra to react and correct these issues should they occur. However with the orchestra off to the side of the stage, the conductor would have been very hard for the cast to see and it would have been very difficult for the conductor to render aid and visual cues to the cast. Overall I was very impressed with the orchestra. I wish they would have spent more time tuning in between Act I and Act II, they took less than 5 seconds, this resulted in the Entr’acte being a bit out of tune, most notably in the strings until about half way through once the orchestra members had a chance to listen around and adjust. I would also have liked to hear some more dynamic contrast in the orchestra only numbers, especially in the opening scene in Act I and ballet scene in Act II.

The ballet scene where Louise dances with a Carnival Boy played by Johnny Wilson contains some very suggestive dancing. This scene could move this show out of the family friendly category for most people. However the dancing was near flawless and very impressive. Wilson and Hodder are obviously accomplished dancers and were very enjoyable to watch. I have always thought the ballet scene in the show was longer than it needed to be, but not this time.

On the technical side I was very impressed with the set changes and flow from one scene to another, with the exception of going from the ballet scene to outside Julie’s cottage in Act II. Once the orchestra was done with the scene change music it took about another 30 seconds, an eternity in theatre, before the cast was set and the lights came up. The lights were very dim in the first few scenes many of the cast’s faces were in shadows; however this was not in issue after the first few scenes. Lighting Designer Michael Grey has a challenging duty trying to light this space with two small light trees on stage right and left and the main lights are mounted behind the audience in the rear of the theater. This results in most of the audience being in the light for most of the performance. The costumes designed by Allen Stout and Assistant Costume Designer John Middletown were period correct and looked good. I was very impressed with the silk acrobat in carnival scene at the opening of the show however I question the presence of silk acrobat in 1870’s Maine. The set, also designed by Allen Stout, used some rather steep ramps that some cast members seemed to have a difficult time with. Other than that the set looked good and was functional.

Overall director Johnny Hebda and the Utah Repertory Theater Company presented a solid and enjoy production. It was a shame to only see the theater half full on opening night but I hope this production will attract a large audience throughout the rest of its run the cast and crew have obviously worked very hard and did a great job.

Utah Repertory Theater Company’s production of “Carousel” performs August 9-24 Friday’s and Saturday’s 7:30pm with a “Pay What You May” Special on Monday August 12 7:30pm and a Family Special Matinee $10 per ticket on Saturday August 17 at 2:00pm and a second regular priced Matinee performance Saturday August 24 at 2:00pm at The Murray Theater. Tickets at the door are $17-20, online $15-18. Running time: Approx. 2 hours 45 minutes, 15 minute intermission.

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