First published in The Times, Wednesday June 8 2016
Someone once said that it takes a village to raise a child, and the same thing could be said of staging musical theatre. There are so many specialist talents involved, from the performers to the creative team and musicians that it is hardly surprising most companies would prefer to give shows requiring large casts and big bands a wide berth, not least in these cash-strapped times.
Pitlochry is therefore to be applauded for daring to take the plunge year upon year. While the theatre in the hills, under the artistic leadership of John Durnin, only added musicals to its repertoire in 2009, the venue has gone on to mount an ambitious roster of works, including Sondheim’s A Little Night Music and its award-winning revival of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.
Pic: Douglas McBride
Though it is perhaps surprising that Durnin has waited seven years to present one of the string of pearls created by Rodgers and Hammerstein (the most commercially successful musical theatre writing team of all time), it is less hard to fathom why the director should have proceeded directly to Carousel, which Richard Rodgers, the composer, considered the duo’s masterpiece.
It is certainly a deeper, more troubling work than, say, Oklahoma!, and on the whole Durnin does a fine job of reconciling the story’s darker shades with the beautiful score, whose highlights range from ensemble numbers such as June is Bustin’ Out All Over to the hymn-like You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Pic: Douglas McBride
This is the first Pitlochry musical not to deploy actor-musicians, but the eight-piece band, led by Jon Beales, interacts well with the singing and dramatic action. For the central love affair between Julie Jordan, the wide-eyed millworker, and Billy Bigelow, the wayward carnival barker who proves both the love and the bane of her life, Durnin has brought together a pair of young talents with fine voices, Anna McGarahan and George Arvidson, whose singing chemistry is on display in the nuanced romantic duet, If I Loved You.
The cast, which includes eye-catching support from Helen Logan as the seen-it-all owner of the carousel, are mostly up to the challenges of the score, even if the blend of voices is not always seamless and the staging a little erratic. It feels at times as though Durnin’s busy production has been squeezed onto the relatively small stage, and some of the dramatic moments, including Billy’s redemptive comeback as a ghost in the final act, could use some finessing.
The showstoppers compensate, though, not least a rousing rendition of the seafarers’ number Blow High, Blow Low, which features energetic choreography by Chris Stuart-Wilson, and the finale with its irresistible reprise of You’ll Never Walk Alone, a song precision engineered to stir the heart.