When Rob Ruggeiro’s production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel” opens this week at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, it will mark the culmination of a long-time dream of the Hartford-based director.
“The Goodspeed has become a real artistic home for me,” the director explained one morning during a relaxed chat in the Goodspeed’s library. “I always look forward to being here.” It can arguably be said that Ruggiero, who currently serves as the Interim Artistic Director of Hartford’s TheaterWorks, has done some of his best work at Goodspeed helming such productions as “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Camelot,” “Big River,” “1776,” and last summer’s revalatory production of “Show Boat,” which was named Best Musical at the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards.
It was due to the care and respect that Ruggiero demonstrated for the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical last summer that helped convinced the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to authorize the Goodspeed to program this summer’s production of “Carousel.” This marks only the second time that the Goodspeed has been given permission by the Organization to mount a Rodgers & Hammerstein show, the first being a production of the team’s “Allegro” over 30 years ago. Ruggiero hopes that his productions of “Show Boat” and now “Carousel” will enable the Goodspeed to produce other shows from the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon in the future.
“Carousel” has been a show that Ruggiero has been eager to direct and on several occasions he shared that desire with Goodspeed’s Executive Director Michael Price. “I’ve had a longstanding affinity for that show,” he explained. “I think it is a very moving piece of theater. Rodgers & Hammerstein themselves called it a ‘musical play’ rather than a musical and I agree. I think it’s Richard Rodgers’ finest work as a composer, yet it maintains a great balance among the music, the dramatic scenes in Oscar Hammerstein’s book, and the dancing.”
At its heart, Ruggiero indicated that he sees “Carousel” as a love story between two damaged souls. “Julie Jordan and carnival roustabout Billy Bigelow share a very powerful love that takes more than one generation to fully tell,” he stated. “The emotional arc of their love is not fully resolved until after their daughter grows up and Billy’s life is over.”
Ruggiero was also attracted to “Carousel” because of the challenge of staging the famous ballet scene in the second act. “The ballet here is not a dream ballet,” he said, comparing it to the one that Rodgers & Hammerstein included in their previous and first success “Oklahoma!” “This dance,” he added, “is the actual continuation of the story that ‘s been acted out in front of the audience. It moves the plot forward.”
As a result, he was concerned a bit about collaborating with the show’s choreographer, Parker Esse, who himself had danced in a number of shows on Broadway. “This would be Parker’s and my first partnership,” Ruggiero recalled, “and I always feel a little tentativeness with a new collaborator. But we went out to lunch, talked about our ideas about the show and the characters and quickly realized that we were speaking the same language. We both felt that the dancing had to naturally grow out of the characters and plot, and ultimately enhance the power of the storytelling. As we explored the work more in rehearsals our work began to overlap instinctively. Parker is an incredibly talented choreographer.”
Of course, audiences attending a production of this show expect to see a carousel on stage, which could indeed prove to be a challenge to recreate on the Goodspeed’s tiny stage. But Ruggiero felt that through the elements of dance the presence of the carousel could be implied. Without revealing much more, he did report that a local sculptor who has created some award-winning carousel horses did make one for this production and, as well, offered some insights into how horses actually move on a carousel. He expressed his hope that the audience would be pleased and thrilled by his and Esse’s solution which would involve the “co-existence of the realistic and interpretive elements, the actual vs. the expressionistic and the imaginative.”
Casting, he continued, was another important aspect of the production, since he took many of his cues for characterization from the book and lyrics of the musical. Billy needs to be a mixture of the charismatic, the confident and the insecure, he said, adding that James Snyder offers a nice combination of all three. “You’re a queer one, Julie Jordan,” is how the leading lady is described, and Ruggiero is pleased that Teal Wicks can inhabit a Julie who may be slightly quirky and opinionated, but also quite strong. Jenn Gambatese, who played the title character in Goodspeed’s “Annie Get Your Gun,” returns as Carrie, the determined friend who dreams of marrying Mr. Snow, the ambitious fisherman. Through her, Ruggiero has been able to humanize the character of Mr. Snow, who can come across as a caricature in some productions, but here, as played by Jeff Kready, comes across as a much fuller human being, the director believes. Snow starts out as a hard working, striving fisherman in this production. Ruggiero indicates, who emerges as a sympathetic character thanks to Carrie’s belief in him.
Wicks, however, will be exiting the production on August in order to begin rehearsals for the Broadway-bound revival of “Jekyll & Hyde. Replacing her will be the young Broadway veteran Erin Davie, who earned considerable notice for playing the younger version of Little Edie Beale in the original Broadway production of “Grey Gardens.” She also played leading lady Guinevere in Ruggiero’s production of “Camelot” at the Goodspeed
Next up for Ruggiero will be yet another Rodgers & Hammerstein favorite, “The King and I,” which he will be directing for the MUNY in St. Louis. Then, this fall, in addition to his duties at TheaterWorks while the Board searches for a new Artistic Director, Ruggiero will also be readying the national tour of Hartfrord-born playwright Matthew Lombardo’s “Looped,” which will once again star Valerie Harper in her Tony-Award nominated role as Tallulah Bankhead. That national tour will begin at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford in January.
Though his musicals at Goodspeed have garnered positive reviews for their creative and expansive use of minimal stage space and spot-on characterizations, Ruggiero is also quite comfortable in the world of “chamber musicals,” musicals with small casts generally in intimate quarters, such as William Finn’s “Elegies” and “Falsettos,” along with his own creation “Make Me A Song: The Music of William Finn” which he later directed in its off-Broadway reincarnation. He’s directed plays in such venues as the Barrington Stage Company, Pittsburgh Public Theater, and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and he’s also garnered attention for his direction of two Matthew Lombardo plays that made it to Broadway, the aforementioned “Looped” as well as “High” which starred Kathleen Turner and which recently completed a national tour. He’s been associated with leading ladies like Turner and Harper (he directed her in “All Under Heaven,” a play about Pearl S. Buck), Tovah Feldshuh and Rosemary Prinz and helped to create the perenially touring “Ella” about the life of jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald.
With “Carousel” and the upcoming “King and I,” both of which the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization will be watching with great interest, Ruggiero may become one of their favored directors which may open up other opportunities for him to approach and reappraise other musical theater classics.
For tickets, call the Goodspeed Musicals’ Box Office at 860.873.8660 or visit the Goodspeed website at www.goodspeed.org.http://www.exasminer.com/art-in-springfield-ma/andrew-beck
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