Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Carousel is revered by many for its artfully woven tapestry of story, song and dance - including Time magazine, which in 1999 named it the best musical of the 20th century. Currently at Kansas City Repertory Theatre is a re-creation of a production that premiered nearly two years ago at a downtown performance space, where Carousel was viscerally staged in a way that both respected the material and deconstructed it to pieces.
June of 2011 was stiflingly hot, and never more so than on the second floor of a loft-like performance space without air-conditioning at 18th and McGee, home base for the up-and-coming theater troupe known as The Living Room. But for the thousand or so people who gathered there over the ten performances of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Carousel, the heat in the room was squelched by the electricity and originality of the show.
The Living Room's co-founder Rusty Sneary starred as the volatile carnival barker Billy Bigelow and recalls what drew his edgy theater to one of the standards of the American musical theater.
"We said we won't do classics, we won't do musicals, and at the end of our first season, we're doing a classical musical," Sneary says. "A lot of theaters may be fond of the musical so when an artist approaches them with that idea of possibly taking everything they're fond of and taking a ball-peen hammer to it and shattering it and finding the truth underneath it is what attracted to me to the process."
Carousel has been big and flashy at such theaters as New York's Lincoln Center, and got the lush Technicolor treatment on screen. But it was conceived for The Living Room by Kansas City Rep associate artistic director Kyle Hatley as something much more raw and pithy. For example, the set was a bare stage above which hung a dozen or so bare light bulbs. Props were limited to a few chairs, a few buckets, and pieces of wood. Hatley directed that production and he's overseeing the Rep's recreation of the show.
A Light Touch
"The idea of doing Carousel is attractive to most theaters," Hatley says prior to a recent rehearsal. "But the idea of doing Carousel stripped down with nothing but light bulbs as a set is not an idea most people can understand until they see it.
"I had this very distinct image of Billy Bigelow on a ladder at the top of the show clicking on a light and then clicking it off, and then every now and then when you click it on, images of people in his life appear in the light as well. And that was the image that essentially blew up into all the different scenes."
At most, The Living Room seats about a hundred. It does have some traditional seating but for many shows, the playing area is surrounded by vintage lamps, thrift store sofas and easy chairs. In an attempt to replicate that intimacy, the Rep has completely reconfigured the theater. It's now a smaller, three-sided house and Hatley says had the Rep not been so amenable, the re-creation wouldn't have gone forward.
"The only way this company would want to do it is to do it the way we did it before," he says. "We couldn't do it at The Living Room because we wouldn't be able to hold all the patrons. But if we converted the stage, and they would be so kind as to let us do that, then we could talk.
"So let's bring the Living Room into the Rep. Not only are we telling this great story the way we did it before, The Not only are we telling this great story the way we did it before, the Rep is supporting a young theater company showing great promise in this city."
The ensemble has grown in proportion to the bigger space, yet most of the original cast is back. Rusty Sneary returns as Billy Bigelow and says the company is eager to return to the show that was memorable for them and anyone who saw it.
"Having it incubate for almost two years and then getting to dive back into it is incredibly rewarding and even more moving to us than the first time around because we've learned so much," Sneary says. "We've continued to live with these characters, most of us, for two years now. That opportunity to give them life again is amazing."
Carousel was the second collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein in a long string of indelible musicals. But when pressed, Rodgers admitted it was his favorite show.
The Kansas City Repertory Theatre presents Carousel, March 8 - March 31, 2013 (EXTENDED THROUGH APRIL 6) Spencer Theatre, James C. Olson Performing Arts Center on the UMKC campus, 4949 Cherry Street, Kansas City, Mo., 816-235-2700.