Whether classic Broadway musicals belong in the opera house is the subject of continuing debate.
The advantages of hearing them done as their creators intended — with trained singers, performing without amplification — should not be.
For its production of “Carousel,” which opened Friday night at Union Avenue Christian Church, Union Avenue Opera assembled a cast of fine singing actors, skilled dancers and a director with major theatrical chops, for a successful whole in the company’s first Broadway outing.
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” based on Ferenc Molnár’s play “Liliom,” has an operatic storyline, if by “operatic” you mean “tragic.” The protagonist, carousel barker Billy Bigelow, is deeply unlikable as written, a man who has no discernible skills (unless being a hunk is a skill), not much of a work ethic and a tendency to lash out violently when he’s upset.
His brief marriage to Julie Jordan, a mill worker, doesn’t give either of them much joy and results in a child as unhappy as he is. But in this tuneful adaptation of the story, a bright thread of hope can be discerned at the end.
Ken Page’s résumé includes stints as an actor, singer, writer and director. (Interestingly, the version in UAO’s program doesn’t mention his best-known role, Oogie Boogie in Tim Burton’s film “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”)
He directed this production with consummate skill, making fine use of the small performance space and making the cast into a true ensemble.
Baritone Wes Mason looked good and sang well as Billy, bringing complexity, charm, solid vocal technique and washboard abs to the role.
It’s easy to see why both the mill girls and his employer, Mrs. Mullin, would fall for him, and he gave a masterfully nuanced account of Billy’s Soliloquy.
Julie is an unusual character for this genre, a thoughtful young woman who keeps her own counsel. Soprano Maria Lindsey invested her with intelligence and certitude as well as a lovely voice.
It was a pleasure to hear and see mezzo-soprano Christine Amon as Julie’s practical friend, Carrie Pipperidge.
Amon brought out all the humor and vocal possibilities in the role while never allowing her character to dissolve into ditziness.
As Carrie’s beloved, the ambitious fisherman Enoch Snow, tenor Anthony Webb sang beautifully and found a good balance between the role’s humor and serious aspects.
Andrew Wannigman brought a solidly malevolent presence and a strong bass-baritone to the role of Jigger Craigin, the bad influence who brings Billy down.
Bass-baritone Robert McNichols Jr. showed his versatility and wit in a trio of small but crucial roles: the mill owner Mr. Bascombe, the Starkeeper and Dr. Seldon.
Merry Keller brought a likable presence to Nettie Fowler; Debbie Lennon was a compelling Mrs. Mullin.
Dancer Emma Gassett brought out all her character’s teenaged anguish as Dance Louise.
Choreographer Yvonne Meyer Hare’s team of dancers did a fine job. In the pit, conductor Scott Schoonover showed himself as adept with Broadway as with Verdi.
Teresa Doggett’s costumes were attractive but didn’t really establish the era. It was an unnecessary distraction to project the dialogue in the surtitles, particularly when what the performers were saying was different from what was shown.
Scenic designer Patrick Huber’s unit set featured a full moon over sails, a pair of video screens on each side in place of scene changes and, in a great touch, a stairway to heaven.