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The Virginian-Pilot: The ups and downs of 'Carousel'

A few days before New Yorker Greg Ganakas headed to Norfolk to direct the classic musical "Carousel," he visited a carousel in Central Park, just to remember what it's like. "It reminded me of when I was a child and when I first stepped onto it, and how fast it went," Ganakas said earlier this week. "And you can choose which horse you're going to get on. And they go up and they go down." "It's turning and it's motion and there's magic to it."

He kept those feelings and memories in mind as he staged the prologue for Virginia Opera's production of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical, presented in association with the Virginia Arts Festival. The musical opens tonight at Harrison Opera House in Norfolk with performances through May 19.

The show begins with "The Carousel Waltz," which suggests the vaguely haunted sound of a calliope, the big music box at the center of a carousel. The waltz has no lyrics and does not get sung in the show, but its prominent placement encourages an audience to grasp the metaphor, as if it were a brass ring.

That opening scene is thick with customers and carnival types - including a fire-eater - who gather amid carousel horses galloping in mid-air.

Then a spotlight hits young Julie Jordan and a hard-edged carousel barker, Billy Bigelow. As they spy each other, an electrified connection gets forged.

Pretty soon they'll steal away together into the woods and sing "If I Loved You," and everything in their lives will change. Along the way, citizens in their 1870s Maine fishing village will sing the show's other beloved songs, such as "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and, in a more sober mood, "You'll Never Walk Alone."

It'll be as though they stepped onto a carousel. Everything will go fast for them, and there will be ups and downs. And they would know that they chose each other for the ride.

Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow represent two worlds. She's a sweet, lovely, innocent factory girl. He's a handsome traveling carnie used to charming girls out of their knickers and their cash.

But they're both dreamers and on some level recognize that they are soul mates.

Another blending of worlds is taking place on stage, too. Ganakas chose to cast opera singers as well as musical theater performers. That's rare but not unheard of. New York Philharmonic recently staged a "Carousel," led by Norfolk native Rob Fisher, that blended opera and Broadway singers and was broadcast on public television last month.

A show like "Carousel" can benefit from the more conversational warmth of a musical theater vocal approach as well as the technical virtuosity of a well-trained operatic voice. To draw from each can bring the best of both realms.

Patricia Noonan, who portrays Julie, was in the ensemble for the New York Phil production, too. She's a musical theater artist, and Matthew Worth, who plays Billy, is an operatic baritone.

"They come from two different musical worlds and find a marriage," Noonan said. "So their love story is that marriage of opera and musical theater."

Worth, who had the title role at Virginia Opera last season in Philip Glass's opera "Orphée" and made the cover of Opera America magazine in that part, chuckled about the collision of cultures. It is only his second musical theater piece since he went professional in 2006; he played Curly last summer in "Oklahoma" for Central City Opera in Colorado.

Dancers in the show have teased him by imitating his open-throated operatic voice - "good-heartedly, to my face," he said.

The rehearsal expectations differ, because opera and Broadway artists belong to different unions with varying stipulations. He thought, for example, that he would get more of a break between the last rehearsal and opening night.

And he was surprised by the discussion about music to accompany their curtain bows. "In opera, we have no music with bows."

"Carousel" has lots of happy dancing and singing and frivolity. A secondary couple is wholesome and smitten. The musical also has its dark side, which is what some theater experts - and the director and the leading performers at Virginia Opera - say give the piece its depth.

Billy Bigelow is a troubled man. He's restless and only knows carnival work. He's tough and defensive with Julie, who only responds with kindness.

He asks her for money. She offers all she has, no questions asked.

He slaps her. She tells someone it didn't really hurt. He doesn't mean to be violent, she says. He's just unhappy because he isn't working.

The piece premiered on Broadway in 1945, two decades before so-called women's liberation kicked in. And yet, while spousal abuse is less tolerated in society today, it remains a widespread problem.

Bad behavior can be found throughout the canon. Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" has Stanley Kowalski beat his wife and rape his sister-in-law and has been called the best play of the 20th century.

But most playwrights seek psychological truth rather than political correctness.

Their purpose isn't to teach audiences what's right and wrong in relationships; it is to hold up a mirror.

Billy is a difficult character, Worth said. "He's often been referred to as the antihero of the repertoire." To explain his actions, the baritone made up a background for him that includes being an abused child of divorced parents, so there's a wounded child festering inside him.

"There are a lot of things about him that are ugly. This is a man who reverts to violence at the drop of a hat. And yet Julie refers to him as gentle with her." Worth sees Billy as having both sides.

Julie can be interpreted as a passive victim. "I think actually that Julie is a very strong woman," Worth said. "She sees past the violence in him."

Noonan said of her character, "I think she's a deeply profound, intelligent person. She finds this joy in nature and truly believes in love. And when she finds this man who touches her in this way, she holds on to that and fights for that."

And when Billy acts up, she said, "I don't think Julie excuses it. I don't think it's a play about excusing domestic abuse. I think she understands where it comes from."

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© Teresa Annas, The Virginian-Pilot 2013