IF there’s one thing that can safely be said of Pitlochry Festival Theatre under its current artistic director, John Durnin, it’s that it doesn’t back off from a challenge.
Carousel | Rating: *** | Pitlochry Featival Theatre
Ever since 2009, when Durnin decided to start including full-scale musical productions in the Pitlochry summer season, the company has been scaling ever-higher musical summits, tackling new work, gorgeous classics like My Fair Lady, and last year the notoriously hard to sing A Little Night Music.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that in its first encounter with Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Pitlochry company has decided to tackle the high drama, soaring melodies, and fantastical ending of their 1945 masterpiece Carousel, a Molnar-inspired tale of working-class life in a New England coastal town at the turn of the 20th century, and of true love blighted by unemployment, despair, violence and untimely death.
Staging Carousel is a tough job, involving huge scenic demands, great singing, performances deep and complex enough to carry the story’s unsettling changes of mood, and some rip-roaring set-piece dance numbers, including the famous clam-bake song, June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.
And although the show begins brilliantly with an impressive carousel effect – and Chris Stuart-Wilson’s choreography is grand, delivering some fine moments the whole cast can share – it has to be said that the singing and acting sometimes seems under strain, as if the cast had expended so much effort getting to grips with Adrian Rees’s slightly over-elaborate sets and costumes that they haven’t had time to focus on the complexity of their characters, or the sheer technical difficulty of breathing their way, while heavily miked, through some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most difficult songs.
George Arvidson gives a mean-tempered version of the play’s violent and vulnerable young fairground barker hero Billy Bigelow, so touchy and unpleasant that it’s hard, in the play’s crucial opening scene, to understand his instant appeal to Anna McGarahan’s lovely, sweet-faced Julie Jordan; and many of the other characters seem like comfortable Pitlochry stereotypes, rolled out with added songs.
Durnin’s Carousel is a richly colourful, spectacular show, though, featuring an impressively hard-working cast of 14, and an eight-piece live band. And the show’s famous final scene – in which the long-dead Billy returns to give strength to his lonely teenage daughter – succeeds in working its full theatrical magic; so that when the cast sing out the final great chorus of You’ll Never Walk Alone, the audience melts into tears, right on cue.
In repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 15 October.