“Carousel” isn’t an opera.
That’s the first point stressed by Dr. Nathan Wight, director of Jacksonville Opera Theatre and its upcoming production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.
“One of the things Rodgers and Hammerstein said about the show is that this is their opera,” Wight said recently during a break on the set. “It’s a more mature musical so we decided to tackle it.”
The styling of the story and songs fits in line with other Rodgers and Hammerstein works such as “Oklahoma!” and “The Sound of Music,” said Wight. But it features a demanding operatic range reaching far higher registers than typical musical theater. Combined with a complex, mature plot that deals with dark subjects like abuse and crime, “Carousel” has a reputation for affecting audiences and performers alike.
“It’s a tragically beautiful show,” said physical education major Daniel Matchen, who plays carousel barker Billy Bigelow. “It’s such a difficult and complex role, but I love it.”
The story follows Billy and millworker Julie from their first meeting where they fall for one another and manage to both become unemployed by the end of the night. They’re married and living together in short order but when Billy can’t find work, he takes his frustration out on Julie.
“He’s a wife beater, but he does it because he’s afraid and vulnerable — he does it to mask those feelings,” said Matchen. “You don’t want to hate him, but you get very frustrated with him and what he does.”
The intensity between Billy and Julie, played by music major Noya Levy, can get so overwhelming that the performers will check in with one another offstage.
“I’m so glad she’s my Julie — she gives me so much to work with,” said Matchen. It’s an intensity they’re excited to share with audiences.
“There’s not one rehearsal where someone hasn’t left crying,” said Levy, laughing. “We feel like we can connect with the audience by telling them this tragic story, and we’re so excited to show what we can do with it.”
That’s not to say the production is a grim dirge. The reality of Billy’s struggle to support his family — especially when Julie reveals there’s a baby on the way — is offset by the almost too-successful pairing of Julie’s friend, Carrie, and her beau, Enoch Snow, played by communications major Macon Prickett.
“Enoch invents canned sardines in the show, has nine children and a sardine factory by the end,” said Prickett.
The second half of the show defies the first act’s dangerous realism by transcending the afterlife and time itself, which leads to a finale that Prickett says may not be absolutely “happy,” but should help audiences get the show’s message.
“We want people to leave the show and tell everyone they love that they love them,” Prickett said.