A Transcendent Carousel at Lyric Opera

Unlike Guys and Dolls or The Music Man, Carousel isn't a show that can simply rest on the strengths of its material. While a good number of classic musicals can lean on their score and inner charms to suffice for a pleasurable evening, Rogers and Hammerstein's 1945 masterpiece requires a director and design team with a rock-solid vision and perspective. Otherwise, this show, which touches on the very tender themes of innocence lost, domestic abuse and the bittersweet promise of second chances,  can easily fall of its axis and roll right into the orchestra pit.

However, under Rob Ashford's sublime direction, Lyric Opera of Chicago's production is a Carousel for the ages. Not only is it exquisitely sung and masterfully acted by a cast of Broadway veterans, its hypnotic production design by Paolo Ventura elevates the dreamlike and otherworldly aspects of this heartbreaking love story.

This isn't a petticoat and ribbon Carousel, as was the case with past productions I've seen (most recently Light Opera Works solid -- if sanitized -- production in 2010). Ashford has smartly moved the action to the depression era, which, unexpectedly, dusts off any of the stuffiness that typically clouds the material.

And what a cast. As brooding carnival barker Billy Bigelow, Steven Pasquale gives one of the most heart-stopping performances I've seen in a musical in recent memory. Pasquale could so easily take advantage of the Lyric's size to make this a bellowing, swaggering performance. But, Ashford and Pasquale have delivered a much more complex and arresting creature -- one who seems lost and constantly searching for an answer. Some may feel he's underplaying the role, but, to me, he's living it -- and when he does unleash those moments of raw passion and fire, such as in his soul-searing (and show-stopping) "Soliloquy," watch out.

As Bigelow's reluctant love interest, Tony nominee Laura Osnes infuses Julie Jordan with a sweet and deep melancholy and sings like a dream. Much like Pasquale, Osnes delivers a measured, nuanced performance, which grounds this production in gritty, human emotion.

Delivering the same sensible sincerity that worked so well when she starred as Maria in Lyric's The Sound of Music, Jenn Gambatese is a highlight as Carrie Pipperidge. As her counterpart, Matthew Hydzik offers a winning Mr. Snow. And as Mrs. Mullins, Broadway hoofer Charlotte D'Amboise takes a once throwaway part and imbues it with fire, sex appeal and relentless desperation. Ashford also finds a way to tap into D'Amboise's talents in the thrillingly re-imagined second act dream ballet.

As with previous Lyric productions of R&H material, the stage is populated with a glorious singing ensemble. And under David Chase's assured baton, the Lyric's orchestra mines all the magic in this lilting score. You do not want to miss this landmark production.

Carousel plays through May 3 at Lyric Opera of Chicago. More info here >