POWERFUL `CAROUSEL' LEAVES AHMANSON AUDIENCE SPINNING.
``Carousel'' ... the title conjures the image of a carefree merry-go-round ride, but it's really about life's ups, downs and endlessly repeating cycles.
Dark and brooding at times, transcendent at others, it gives us love, death and redemption as told through Rodgers and Hammerstein songs that have become part of the nation's vocabulary: ``The Carousel Waltz,'' ``If I Loved You,'' ``June Is Bustin' Out All Over'' and the anthem that makes 'em cry every time, ``You'll Never Walk Alone.''
The 1956 movie and countless professional and community theater productions have tended to sugarcoat our memories of the show, but a much-talked-about and much-awarded staging by Britain's Royal National Theatre strips that all away to reveal the play's raw energy - the life force beating furiously in its breast.
After what must seem like an eternity to those who couldn't get to London for the original 1993 staging or to New York for its subsequent presentation there, the show arrives at the Ahmanson Theatre on national tour. Though packaging it for travel has somewhat diminished its extraordinary designs, and though its touring cast isn't quite as accomplished as its New York company, the show is exhilarating nevertheless. And entering, as it does, with the Nicole Brown Simpson/Ron Goldman/O.J. Simpson tragedy still swirling all around, this musical about an abusive carousel barker is nothing short of explosive.
From its very first images, the production - directed by Nicholas Hytner (``Miss Saigon,'' ``The Madness of King George'') - tweaks and enhances the story to clarify characters' motivations and underscore the story's ongoing relevance.
In a stunning sequence not indicated in the original libretto, the story now begins in the drab New England textile mill where Julie Jordan and her friend Carrie Pipperidge work in 1873. A huge clock looms over a line of women in drab gray dresses and bonnets as they methodically, monotonously work the loom. Dissonant minor chords litter the opening strains of ``The Carousel Waltz,'' underscoring the drudgery of their lives. Slowly, the clock inches toward 6 o'clock, and as their shift ends, the women scream with excitement, change into festive clothes and rush through the just-unlocked factory gates.
Meeting up with men finishing their shift in a shipbuilding yard, they head for an amusement park - the only excitement this buttoned-up little seaside town has to offer. While they're distracted by sideshows and wandering magicians and pugilists, we see carousel horses being rolled into place on the giant turntable built into the stage floor. The music swells and swells to an impossible pitch, and just as it explodes into its joyous principal theme, a giant umbrellalike device descends, pops open and becomes the carousel's canopy.
Mullin's Carousel is open for business, presided over by Billy Bigelow - handsome, swaggering, flirting with all the girls.
By witnessing the dreariness of Julie's life at the factory - where she is literally cloistered in a dormitory with all the other young women - we understand how she could be so carried away by the carousel and its dashing but gruff barker.
In an equally insightful scene that takes place beneath a luminous full moon on a nearby mound of grass, we see the cat-and-mouse game in which she and Billy realize they've fallen in love. Nervously advancing and retreating from one another, they tear down each other's walls and dare to be vulnerable.Though Billy will quickly lose the only job in the world he's suited for, and their relationship will sour into an endless cycle of tense standoffs and abuse, we have that image of them singing ``If I Loved You'' to remind us that there's something pure and precious at the core of their relationship.
As the story takes a tragic turn, Julie's cousin Nettie will deliver the show's central message - ``walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you'll never walk alone'' - and the deceased Billy, allowed to return to Earth to try to set things right, will miserably utter ``No, no'' as Julie tells their 15-year-old daughter that sometimes it is possible to be hit hard and yet never feel the pain (another addition to the libretto).
Perhaps the most astonishing sequence occurs in the second act as Billy surreptitiously witnesses his daughter's frustrations, pantomimed in a muscular ballet in which the old cycle begins anew as a willowy but tough Louise (Dana Stackpole) falls for a preening tough guy just like Billy (Joseph Woelfel).
The only blemish on this extraordinary production is the slightly below-par casting of the two leads. As Billy, Patrick Wilson sings with emotion yet lacks the dreamy good looks and drop-dead charisma that Michael Hayden (who would go on to play hunky defense lawyer Chris Docknovich on ABC's ``Murder One'') conveyed in the original. That charisma was essential, for it helped explain why Julie would stick with Billy even though he could so often be a louse. Sarah Uriarte's Julie is similarly bland.
Thus, the show belongs to the secondary leads: Carrie and her betrothed, Enoch Snow, both played by African-Americans - Sherry D. Boone and Sean Palmer - in an audacious and entirely successful example of colorblind casting.
THE FACTS The show: ``Carousel.''
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, in the Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; plus 7 p.m. Sundays July 14-Aug. 4 and 2 p.m. Thursdays Aug. 8-22. Through Aug. 25.
Running time: Three hours, one intermission.
Tickets: $15 to $65, available by calling (213) 628-2772.
Our rating: Four Stars.
Photo: Sarah Uriarte and Patrick Wilson star in the Royal N ational Theatre production of ``Carousel'' at the Music Center's Ahmanson Theatre.