‘Carousel’ takes old-fashioned values into the present day

Carousel takes old-fashioned values into the present day
Poster of Reportory Philippines’ restaging of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Carousel”

Nearly 80 years since Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Carousel” was first performed on Broadway, the main challenge of restaging this classic musical has become less about creating great performances or doing justice to its score, and more about providing insight into the subject of domestic violence. 

Handled poorly, this dark love story between poor carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Gian Magdangal) and innocent mill worker Julie Jordan (Karylle Tatlonghari) can easily romanticize physical abuse or create a disproportionate amount of sympathy for the abuser instead of the victim. But one can’t just sanitize the original material either; making something truly constructive out of the musical’s thornier elements takes far more consideration.

So it feels like the right choice that Repertory Philippines and director Toff de Venecia (with assistant director Kyla Rivera) deal with “Carousel’s” darkness not by tiptoeing through its story and distracting us with song and dance, but by confronting it head-on right from the start. This is an audacious production that recognizes how traditional, patriarchal gender norms are the ticking bomb driving the drama forward. 

And while it still isn’t without flaws, for once this “Carousel” isn’t just trying to apologize for itself; it asks us to take its difficult nature as fact.

No rose-tinted misconceptions

Even upon entering the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez Black Box Theater, one clearly sees that this production wants to avoid any and all rose-tinted misconceptions about its story. 

Charles Yee’s almost entirely barren stage and Barbie Tan-Tiongco’s bleak lighting design evoke the loneliness of an abandoned boardwalk more than any memories of a lively festival. The ensemble paces aimlessly into and around each other, as the central romance is sparked in the background, through passing glances and muffled conversation. This busy feeling persists through most of “Carousel’s” major numbers, as De Venecia disrupts the whimsy of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music with the silent anguish of certain female characters and the invasive, leering presence of the male characters.

 This version of the musical is so actively engaged in wrestling with its own material this way, which makes it all the more impressive when every vocal still soars and every performance still emerges so strongly. Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante’s Carrie and Lorenz Martinez’s Enoch are immediate scene-stealers, the only ones who provide a joyful counterbalance to the rest of the show’s sadness—which isn’t to say its serious moments aren’t frequently as enthralling. 

Magdangal gives a towering, end-of-his-rope performance as Billy, which apexes with the legendary seven-and-a-half-minute solo “Soliloquy.” Magdangal successfully renders Billy not just as a down-on-his-luck lowlife, but also as a man imprisoned by his own narrow-minded views of gender roles.

But there are definitely instances when this “Carousel” struggles against the sheer rigidity of the material, to the point where its boldest attempts to create something new overshoot their intended purpose. Scenes where lyrics are distributed to the audience or where characters film themselves through smartphones and perform TikTok dances are interesting, but end up overemphasizing to the audience that this musical is a product of an older time being presented to us in the here and now.

The effort is appreciated, but they feel at odds with the production’s more straightforward parts—especially the final performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone (Reprise),” which is curiously lacking the kind of invention seen through the rest of the show, perhaps out of some sense of reverence.

Breathless level of nuance

Still, when it matters most, this “Carousel” manages to bring a breathless level of nuance to scenes that easily could have been played the obvious way. The extended contemporary ballet sequence in Act 2 could stand on its own as a separate production, as Gia Gequinto’s performance and Stephen Viñas’ choreography build to a visceral outburst of emotion that tells the story of generations of young women.

And in the most crucial, climactic moment—arguably the one that makes or breaks entire attempts to do this musical—Tatlonghari finally addresses Billy’s abuse with a wonderfully ambiguous mix of fury, exhausted love, and long-repressed defiance. It’s a stroke of inspiration and a stunning balancing act by the actress, changing the meaning of such an infamous line, and potentially the show as a whole.

It may not always make for a complete rehabilitation of the musical, but there’s always something to be admired in a production that feels like it’s still constantly in the process of creating itself.

“Carousel” runs until Dec. 18 at the Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez Black Box Theater.

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