Anyone who watches musicals knows Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. After all, they almost invented modern musical theater. “Oklahoma!”, “South Pacific”, “The King and I”, “The Sound of Music”-- these plays (and the film versions) are big. They are large in scope, with catchy and timeless songs and big production values.
The Kansas City Repertory Theatre is now running – through April 6 -- a slightly less famous work by Rodgers and Hammerstein, “Carousel”, in cooperation with another Kansas City theater company, The Living Room.
The Living Room has not been around a long time, and it is in a very small space (at 1818 McGee St.), but it has built a reputation for imaginative shows. In 2011, they did a fairly radical interpretation of “Carousel”, and it was noticed. It has now been remounted at the KC Rep’s Spencer Theatre, and the result is a unique theatrical experience for several reasons.
“Carousel” is probably the darkest story that Rodgers and Hammerstein did. It’s about a carnival barker named Billy who is quite the lady-killer. He has a reputation for using women for sex and then moving on. But then he meets Julie, a woman who can hold her own against Billy’s charms. This causes him to fall in love with her, and they get married. But Billy can’t change his ways so easily, and the consequences are disastrous.
This Living Room production at the KC Rep is a stripped-down, minimal version. As a sign of how supportive the KC Rep is toward this vision, they actually closed off their big auditorium to construct a small theater-in-the-round with only a fraction of the seating that they usually provide. The stage is tiny. And in fact, except for a few crates and some naked lightbulbs hanging on chains, the stage is also bare. This naked approach also extends to the famous music -- no swelling string instruments or bright brassy horns here. Only a piano.
Some of the songs in the show still do require a lot of people, so there is a pretty large ensemble cast of singers. When they are all on the stage at one time, there isn’t much room to move around. But the play is mostly about two people, with another subplot involving two more people. So the intimate setting is entirely appropriate.
Certain theater-goers might consider this treatment to be borderline sacrilege. And I must admit, this is a risky choice. Some shows would be killed by such an extreme makeover. But for “Carousel”, the result is just the opposite. By presenting the story in such a bare-bones way, there is nothing to distract the audience from recognizing what the play is really about. This is a show about sex, about weakness, domestic violence, and the quest for redemption.
Theater veteran Rusty Sneary plays Billy. Sneary takes what could be seen as a one-dimensional character and gives him some real depth. He portrays Billy as a guy that tries to be a good man, even though he doesn’t always know what that means. Molly Denninghoff plays Julie with a sense of forced calm that barely covers a passionate heart.
There are two other main characters in the show, Carrie and Enoch. They represent the mirror image of the relationship that Billy and Julie have. Matthew McAndrews plays Enoch, and does a great job being the conservative, straitlaced young man who is exasperated by his decidedly more high-spirited wife, Carrie (played with super cute vigor by Liz Clark Golson).
“Carousel” was written in 1945, when American culture was a different beast. But the story and the theme of this show are as timeless as human nature. The Living Room and KC Rep have successfully managed to prove that this show is still as relevant today as it was at the end of World War II.
“Carousel” will run through April 6 at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. For tickets, go to www.kcrep.org or call 816-235-2700.

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