Kansas City Repertory Theatre reinvents a stage classic.

Image13The nature of a carousel is to whirl round and round with each turn enchanting. And now comes Carousel, the beloved musical of the 1940s, taking a new, freshly-imagined turn at Kansas City Repertory’s Spencer Theatre.

“One of the most exciting things is that, for the first time, by collaboration, we’re presenting a young, local theater company in this production,” says Carousel director Kyle Hatley, Associate Artistic Director at the Rep. He introduced this rendition to ovations at the 80-seat The Living Room, a vibrant, alternative theater, last year. Now on the big stage, the Rep and The Living Room are giving Carousel another go-around. Expect the ride to be magical.

It all began with a great script, the non-musical Liliom, a stage play set in Budapest more than a century ago. Then in the hey-day of Broadway musicals, composers Rodgers and Hammerstein modernized the play, Americanized it and energized it with a musical score and original love songs. Liliom became Carousel.

But the magic of reinvention didn’t end back then. Carousel is modernized and energized once more for the show that runs at the Rep through March 31. This time around, the credit goes to Hatley who sees “possibilities in classic material that few other directors would,” The Kansas City Star’s theater critic Robert Trussell said in a previous review.

“What excites us is a continual search for the best way to tell a story,” says Hatley, a native of Memphis, now an innovator in Kansas City’s artistic community of writers, actors, artists and directors that is often called astonishing. “As a director, I’m most interested in the audience relationship to the story, whether it’s Christmas Carol or Carousel,” he told KCStudio. “It’s complicated for me to talk about and easier for me to show.”

The Joy In It
As Carousel circles around this time at the Rep, Hatley intensifies a feeling of intimacy between characters and the audience by whittling away “enormous” production elements tied to traditional staging. The grandiose is gone – along with the artifice.
Rather than an oversized physical piece that dominates, the carousel is instead a halo of lights. The effect of “pull-string” lighting illustrates emotion, sets mood, creates environment and shows seasonal change, Hatley says. Light zooms in and zooms out on characters and scenes.

“The minimalist treatment gives us the opportunity to tell this big, huge story in a simpler way,” he said. “The only thing that got big about it is the emotion. There’s a great joy in that.”

The purity and heart of a story that revolves around an uneasy romance between carousel barker Billy Bigelow and millworker Julie Jordan remain. So does Rodgers and Hammerstein’s score with its enduring classics, If I Loved You… You’ll Never Walk Alone… and many more, both poignant and fanciful.

On Stage & Beyond
The nostalgic, familiar characters of Carousel all take the stage. There’s Billy and Julie and Jigger, Carrie and Enoch Snow, the ingenue Louise and an assortment of townsfolk. What’s reinvented is a technical, theatrical and artistic environment that nourishes an audience’s appetite for a brand new experience they haven’t witnessed before, Hatley said.

To reinforce it, the Rep’s Producing Director Jerry Genochio hammered out structural (and surprising) details. Select seating is arranged on stage in a style reminiscent of a previous season’s Cabaret. Then on “promenade” staging built out over the lower half of Spencer Theatre, in-the-round seating is revamped in a unique, informal way. “It isn’t traditional theatre seating,” Genochio says. “It’s a mix, totally new to this audience, with some couches and chairs and seats.” There’s a closeness about it that captures the show’s spirit – a feeling of community, a gathering.

“In the big stage version, you can see Billy Bigelow singing his soliloquy and be affected by that,” Genochio says. “In Kyle’s version, you might literally be five seats away.”

A Well-Loved Musical
Modernizing a well-loved musical was neither easy, nor risk free. But the earlier experience at The Living Room assured Hatley and Eric Rosen, the Rep’s Artistic Director, that Carousel’s transformation is good. Very good. Some will say brilliant.

“We’ve had sort of a litmus test. We had to bump up the seating for a more diverse audience in race and age, younger and older,” Hatley says. “It felt good.” With that, the experimental staging proved to be a valid risk and Hatley said he now “knows for a fact” the show is cross-cultural and cross-generational in its embrace.

In the end, Hatley and Genochio’s imagination and hard work are an act of sharing. The show may not be seen the way it’s been seen in the past, but this Carousel carries a sentiment that’s as strong as a promise. Chances are, you’ll feel a oneness with the characters and a story set to music – and fall in love with an American classic as never before.

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