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‘Carousel’ ready to spin at Lyric Opera of Chicago

The enduring grandeur and brilliance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals hardly needs further explanation. “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” The King and I,” “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music” are the essential building blocks of the American musical theater, combining lushly beautiful, singable scores with stories that never lose their worldly outlook yet optimistic spirit.

To be sure, much has changed on Broadway in the 70 years since the team’s second masterpiece, “Carousel,” had its debut. But as anyone who hears the bittersweet strains of the show’s uniquely haunting overture, “The Carousel Waltz,” can tell you, there is still a stringent modernity to its seductive siren call. And the dark but passionate tale this musical spins —  love at first sight, a troubled marriage, the pain of a child with an absent father — could not be more timely.

“Carousel” is not revived as often as many of the major works in the R&H archive. Its last major production of note was director Nicholas Hytner’s revelatory 1994 version at the Lincoln Center Theatre. So there is a sense of genuine anticipation in the air about Lyric Opera’s grand-scale edition being directed and choreographed by Tony-, Emmy- and Olivier Award-winner Rob Ashford, and headlined by Steven Pasquale (most recently on Broadway in “The Bridges of Madison County,” and a regular on the CBS series “The Good Wife”) as carnival barker Billy Bigelow, and Laura Osnes (who just starred on Broadway in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s “Cinderella”) as Julie Jordan, the New England millworker.

‘CAROUSEL’

When: April 10 – May 3

Where: Civic Opera House,20 N. Wacker Dr.

Tickets: $29 – $199

Info: (312) 827-5600;

http://www.lyricopera.org/carousel

These days, Ashford may be most widely known for his staging of NBC’s “Peter Pan Live!” and “The Sound of Music Live!,” and the musical numbers in the recent Disney feature film, “Cinderella,” directed by Kenneth Branagh. His credits also include everything from the 2011 Broadway revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” starring Daniel Radcliffe, to the 2012 revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” starring Scarlett Johansson, to Lyric’s 2014 production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” Yet this will be his initial attempt at “Carousel,” a show he first performed in as a young dancer at Pittsburgh’s Point Park College.

Ashford has every intention of honoring the material, but he also is determined to dispense with any “twee,” petticoat-and-crinoline-swishing cliches that may have clung to the musical through the years.

Rob Ashford, director and choreographer of the Lyric Opera production of "Carousel."

Rob Ashford, director and choreographer of the Lyric Opera production of “Carousel.”

“Of course the score is incredible,” said Ashford. “But the first thing I did was to probe the show’s history. It’s an Americanized version of ‘Liliom,’ a 1909 play by the Hungarian-Jewish writer Ferenc Molnar [who immigrated to the United States during World War II].  Both Puccini and Kurt Weill tried to get the rights to set ‘Liliom’ to music, and Molnar turned them down. It was only after he saw a production of  ‘Oklahoma!’ that he relented.”

‘What fascinates me is that Rodgers and Hammerstein captured this New England town in a way that was not puritanical or prudish, but full of hard-working people focused on survival,” said Ashford. “They they are deeply connected to their natural impulses — something you can see in the attraction between Billy and Julie, and in the ferocity of her determination to stay with him. The long scene between these two early in the show, when they just sit on a bench, is one of the greatest musical scenes ever written, with the music weaving in and out as they take a real journey of love and discovery, of themselves and each other.”

“I’ve tried to make the show sparer and more fable-like. And I found the key to the look of it in the work of Paolo Ventura, an Italian artist whose ‘Winter Stories’ [photographs of tabletop constructions] I saw in an exhibition in New York in 2008. I immediately though: If I ever do a production of ‘Carousel,’ this is who I’d want to design it. His work is just so achingly beautiful and melancholy at the same time, with the same twisted chords heard in the show.”

A model of the carousel by artist Paolo Ventura, who is making his debut as a set designer with Lyric Opera's production of "Carousel."

A model of the carousel by artist Paolo Ventura, who is making his debut as a set designer with Lyric Opera’s production of “Carousel.”

Laura Osnes, the 29-year-old Minnesota-born actress who, at 21, landed the lead role of Sandy in a Broadway revival of “Grease” by winning the reality TV competition “Grease: You’re the One that I Want!,” confessed she has never seen a production (or the film version) of “Carousel,” although she knew the songs.

“When I read the script I was hooked,” said Osnes. “And Rob [Ashford’s] take on the story is so great — super real and gritty, with earthy, desperate characters. It has a minimalist quality, and although the Lyric stage is huge, and we have a 37-piece orchestra and an incredible chorus, and he has filled it with these big, sharp, diagonal movements, there is a great intimacy, too. And of course I love my character. Julie is, as the lyric says, ‘a queer one’ — tight-lipped, thoughtful, quiet, mysterious, a daydreamer who feels stifled by the life she’s living. And while her best friend is Carrie Pipperidge [played by Jenn Gambatese], they are completely different, and she will have something with Billy that Carrie will never have with her husband, Enoch Snow [Matthew Hydzik].”

Pasquale admits he was unfamiliar with “Carousel” until adulthood, but for years now the role of Billy Bigelow has been on his “bucket list.” Like Osnes, he has never seen a production of the musical, although he did sing Billy’s fabled “Soliloquoy” [about becoming a father] at a gala at the Westport Playhouse in Connecticut in 2008. More crucially, as the father of an 18-year-old daughter from an early relationship, he confesses: “I don’t allow my brain to go there while I’m singing that song or I’d never get through it.”

So is this production of “Carousel” headed to Broadway?

“I guess we all have evil, secret plans that it might happen,” said Pasquale. “But we’re not thinking about that now.”