What comes around

World turning: Kristen Hedberg and Dominic Aquilino star as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow in Carousel, a musical nearly 70 years old that still offers up relevant themes.

It’s a night at the symphony and a night at the theater, says Dominic Aquilino, assistant director of Asheville Lyric Opera’s upcoming production of Carousel. He means it’s like an evening out at both venues at the same time, because this version of the classic musical includes 30 musicians on stage, led by Asheville Symphony conductor Daniel Meyer.

And dancers from MOTION Dance Theatre, choreographed by MOTION founder Nick Kepley.

And a cast of 11 ALO vocalists.

Aquilino also stars as carnival barker Billy Bigelow, a role he says is a stretch as an actor. “If you don’t tell it right, he comes off as abusive,” Aquilino says. But Bigelow is troubled and it’s the adversities he faces that make him both hard to love and completely relatable: He loses his job, as does his love interest, Julie Jordan (played by Kristen Hedberg). It’s a scenario many American families faced in the last five years. “It will resonate,” says Aquilino.

Carousel was first produced by Rogers and Hammerstein in 1945. As a followup to the writing team’s wildly successful and groundbreaking musical theater debut, Oklahoma!, the duo decided to adapt Molnár's 1909 Budapest-set play, Liliom. It was redrawn in Maine and scored with songs like “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which became not only musical-theater classics but, in the case of the latter, “is probably sung at more weddings, funerals and every other large event you can ever think of,” Aquilino says.

His favorite, he says, is the famous “Soliloquy,” sung when Billy learns that Julie is expecting. “I think every father has a some of this going through his head,” says Aquilino. (Frank Sinatra recorded a version of the song in ’46 as a new father himself.) “It’s the reason it’s so famous — not just because it’s long and high,” says Aquilino.

Hedberg says that what Carousel did differently than Oklahoma! was get the audience into real stories and relationships with which they could identify. “If you really look at the dialogue and the way it intertwines with the music, it’s very clear what the writers were asking for,” she says. “There’s no big mystery if you compare it to the time period it was set in, which was the late 19th century, and what women’s choices were like, the way their choices were very transitional.” Hedberg sees Julie as a “Jill-of-all-trades” deciding between whether she wants to marry or remain single and work for a living; that decision hints at the early stirrings of the women’s movement.

Hedberg says that the show’s dialogue is tricky because it’s subtle and realistic, but contains a lot of subtext that she as an actor has to make real for the audience.

Another challenge, Aquilino notes, is that there are some dated aspects to Carousel. “I don’t want to use the word flawed,” he says, “But it’s definitely written in an age when the man was allowed to do certain things that are just not [accepted] these days.” To adjust, ALO (helmed by artistic director David Craig Starkey), is making small adjustments to the inflection and delivery of dialogue, as well as some character choice changes.

“Billy Bigelow is a very dark, misunderstood character,” says Aquilino. “It’s a delicate issue to make the audience feel for him and what he’s going through.”

Helping to flesh out the story is the addition of the live musicians, set front and center instead of tucked away in the orchestra pit. Aquilino says that while it might take the audience a minute to acclimate to the staging, “it will add colors that you normally wouldn’t be paying attention to.” Through “the drama of watching the instruments be played, and the way each one of those instrumental parts tells its own story (because Rogers and Hammerstein were brilliant at that) you’ll see the characters come alive on stage, but you’ll also see the characters of each instrument come alive as well. It’s a dual storytelling,” he says.

The live orchestra will challenge the singers, who will perform without amplification. “But it’s not like you’ll have to stand there and belt it out,” says Hedberg. “There are so many places where the orchestra is subtle.” There is precedent: The New York Philharmonic production of Carousel, featuring New York City Ballet dancers, took the stage at Lincoln Center earlier this year, and aired as a PBS special in April.

And, when it comes to musical theater as performed by an opera company with a symphony, Aquilino is up for the adventure, which suits his particular skill set. “When I’m singing in the opera, I’m known as the singing actor, and when I’m in a musical theater piece, I’m known as the opera singer,” he says. “I always try to make it my mission, regardless of the format, to find real, honest moments that bring the drama up to a higher place.”

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

what: Carousel
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Friday and Saturday, July 19 and 20 (8 p.m. nightly, 3 p.m. matinee on Saturday. $30-$53 adults, $17-$35 students. http://www.dwtheatre.com.)

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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