Reagle, Ellis, Sheehan do right by classic ‘Carousel’

Leigh Barrett as Nettie Fowler (center) and ensemble members from “Carousel.” Courtesy Reagle Music Theatre/©Herb Philpott

Leigh Barrett as Nettie Fowler (center) and ensemble members from “Carousel.” Courtesy Reagle Music Theatre/©Herb Philpott

WALTHAM – You can take a few notes from a signature piece of music in some musicals that, when heard, immediately bring the play to mind.

That includes the opening strains of the “Carousel Waltz,” which signals the beginning of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece “Carousel,” the opening production of the Reagle Music Theatre’s 48th season.

Scenic designer Richard Schreiber has crafted a lovely working carousel to open Reagle’s production of the bittersweet story of a young mill worker’s doomed romance with a dashing carnival barker.

The musical is based on Ferenc Molnar’s play “Liliom,” which was adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer before it became a musical.

Jennifer Ellis is, as Maggie Smith would note as Miss Jean Brodie, “in her prime” as a performer as she continues her march through the canon of Great Americans Musicals after her acclaimed performance as Eliza in last year’s “My Fair Lady” at Lyric Stage.

Jennifer Ellis as Julie Jordan (left) and Ciarán Sheehan as Billy Bigelow in “Carousel.” Courtesy Reagle Music Theatre/©Herb Philpott

Jennifer Ellis as Julie Jordan (left) and Ciarán Sheehan as Billy Bigelow in “Carousel.” Courtesy Reagle Music Theatre/©Herb Philpott

Impetuous young Julie Jordan (Ellis) toils long hours in the local mill but yearns for adventure, the kind of adventure that what you might call a “bad boy” such as handsome carnival barker Billy Bigelow can provide.

Ciaran Sheehan as Billy is a fine actor/singer and cuts a dashing figure but is a bit older than you’d like the character to be, as he attracts young women to the carousel owned by Mrs. Mullin (Karen Fanale), who regards Billy as her prized procession.

Take any chance you can to hear Leigh Barrett sing, and she makes her Reagle debut as Nettie Fowler, Julie’s cousin who provides the newlyweds a place to stay as they try to survive after Billy loses his job with the carnival.

When Julie is pregnant, Billy makes the fateful decision to explore faster ways to make money with the slimy Jigger Cravin (Todd Yard).

“Carousel,” is 70 years old, and some have noted the show’s puzzling attitude towards its domestic violence, just as some theater troupes have revisited the language of “West Side Story” or the use of the “N-word” in “Big River.”

Musicals are a snapshot of a time and place – in this case, the coast of Maine in 1873 and later in the century – and to change the way things actually were back then and the portrayals of the characters is to view through a flawed prism, while showing a lack of respect for the actual work.

Rodgers and Hammerstein don’t have to burnish their resume, not after they not so subtly condemned prejudice in “South Pacific.”

“Carousel” director/choreographer Rachel Bertone has worked at Reagle before as a choreographer but with smaller casts than the 66 – count them, 66 – bodies on stage at the Robinson Theatre at some point in the Reagle production; blocking the curtain call probably took as much time as whole numbers in other shows.

With Equity performers, up-and-coming young talent and amateur players, the hope and goal is that the professionalism of Bertone, the leads and the Equity performers carries down to the members of the ensemble. When it happens, it allows the production numbers to be as spectacular as Rodgers and Hammerstein intended them to be.

So while Ellis, Sheehan and Barrett lead the way, there’s other performances of note. Dan Prior, very strong in last year’s “Wonderful Town,” returns as the flinty, dry-humored New England fisherman Enoch Snow, who aims to make Julie’s friend Carrie Pipperidge (Jessica Kundla) his wife despite his being olefactorally challenged.

Kundla is spritely and spunky as Carrie and sports quite a fine set of pipes herself, part of what might be the finest collection of voices the Reagle has seen in many years.

Vocal highlights include the Julie-Billy duet “If I Loved You,” the glorious “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” led by Barrett, Kundla’s “Mr. Snow,” and Ellis’ “What’s the use of Wond’rin’.” Sheehan has the voice and vocal stamina to carry “Soliloquy” while it seems the whole city of Waltham is involved in the climactic “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Kyra Christiopher has a nice turn as Louise Bigelow, Julie and Billy’s confused and troubled daughter, in Act II and handles Agnes DeMille’s ballet sequence with aplomb.

At a recent performance, the orchestra’s horns were a little bit too prevalent in some of the show’s softer ballads where the strings could have been stronger for a better balance.

That’s a small point in the overall scheme of things. This “Carousel” is big where it has to be big, and small – in the intimate moments – where it has to be small. It’s done right, done well.

The Reagle Music Theatre production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Richard Rodgers. Based on the play “Liliom” by Ference Molnar as adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer. Directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone. Scenic design by Richard Schreiber. Lighting design by David Wilson. Producing artistic director Robert J. Eagle. Music direction by Dan Rodriguez. Conductor Jeffrey Leonard. At the Robinson Theatre through June 19.