As eager performers completed the last of their warm up routines before the final dress rehearsal, I took my seat in the empty Pact Theatre. I readied for the lights to dim, when a distant ruckus suddenly broke out, and a crowd of excitable theatregoers flooded the room. Panic seeped through me as I wondered whether I’d mixed up my dates and come to the opening night instead of the rehearsal, but my racing mind was quickly put at ease.
Director and producer Matt Hourigan strode onto centre stage, announcing that due to overwhelming demand, the dress rehearsal had opened to those who missed out on tickets to the four scheduled shows. From the get-go, it is not difficult to see where this demand to see MUSE’s performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 musical came from.
The set design is minimalist; an assortment of antique wooden tables, chairs, palettes and ladders resting haphazardly on a wide bed of sand. Three small timber horses sit patiently among the furniture, foreshadowing the ‘carousel’ we all came to see. This provides a perfect backdrop for the musical’s 1873 setting in a patriarchal town in the coastal U.S. state of Maine.
We’re introduced to millworkers Julie Jordan (Caitlin Rose) and Carrie Pipperidge (Phoebe Clark), who visit the carousel, bursting with youthful giddiness. Here they meet mischievous carnival barker, Billy Bigelow, played by Jack Dawson.
Dawson acutely embodies Billy’s complex and volatile nature, as he suffers intense mood swings. Billy and Julie have an unmistakable chemistry, which is as moving as it is disconcerting. In one scene, Billy is verbally abusive towards Julie just before she tells him they’re having a baby, after which he moves instantly to complete exuberance. Rose delivers a superb and nuanced performance as Julie, who is painfully vulnerable in moments, but also imbued with an immense inner strength.
But the performance of the night goes to Phoebe Clark, who shines as the endearing Carrie. Her American accent is flawless and unwavering, and her comedic delivery is stellar. As I watch the plot unfold, I can’t help but yearn for a dramatic pivot where Julie and Carrie abandon their meagre existence in search for something better, but they seem relatively content with their lot.
Domestic violence and female subservience are prominent themes in Carousel, and the production team’s decision to leave the script in its original form is a bold one. In MUSE’s program, they explain that doing so “affords audiences and performers the opportunity to interrogate the kinds of attitudes that existed in times past.” While this is true, whether it is necessary to bring such oppressive attitudes to life is questionable, especially when they are addressed in the script in such a nonchalant manner.
Aside from the problematic subject matter, there are many points in the plot where you’re just left thinking, “huh?”, perhaps an unavoidable hallmark of the musical theatre genre. For instance, Julie proclaims she will never marry, but quickly changes this sentiment in her duet with Billy, “If I Loved You”, and soon enough they’re hitched. At another point, Billy dies and within seconds, is greeted in the afterlife by a heavenly friend, who informs Billy that his recently unborn child is now 15, and that he must go back down to Earth to do some good before he can cross the threshold through the pearly gates.
Aside from some minor technical difficulties that were no doubt a symptom of the night being a dress rehearsal, the production was seamless. The performances by all cast members are masterful and captivating, resembling more a professional production than amature piece of student theatre.
Hourigan and Charlotte Middleton’s choreography is remarkable, and executed with conviction by all. Chorus sections are in great synchronisation, which is no mean feat, and ballerina Miranda Middleton is radiant. The vocals are exceptional, and the orchestra, under the expert direction of Harry Collins, is equally as impressive.
MUSE’s Carousel is a triumph, and anyone lucky enough to have nabbed tickets is in for a treat.
Carousel plays at the Pact Theatre, 8-11 August.