Romance Through the Years

Two local productions show the doldrums of relationships gone sour

Romance at 20, romance at 80 and the doldrums in between occupy two Tucson stages this month. At the low end of the age scale spins the musical Carousel, at the UA; at the middle and upper lifespan levels floats Andrew Bergman's comedy, Social Security, at Live Theatre Workshop. In the first, young love goes bad from the start; in the second, love lies dormant in middle age, but can be awakened at the most unexpected times.

Carousel is not your usual happy-sappy Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, although the often-insipid lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein III threaten to make it so. Before you have to put up with the words, listen to Richard Rodgers' first, discordant notes; they imitate an out-of-tune calliope and imply that all is not well on this carousel. Then comes a wistful, disturbing waltz that suggests the darkness underlying the surface gaiety of the show. This is just the beginning of one of Rodgers' best scores, and even if Hammerstein's contribution can't match Rodgers' sophistication, the musical still boasts enough quality to win over an audience nearly 60 years after its premiere.

The Arizona Repertory Theatre production at the UA is, indeed, winning, however imperfect it may be. Director Harold Dixon underlines some of the show's darker elements--after all, the so-called hero is an unemployed wife-beater--without imposing heavy-handed psychoanalysis.

Rough, unreliable carnival barker Billy Bigelow, much to his confusion, discovers a hint of tenderness lurking within his clenched soul when he begins to romance an innocent but resilient young woman named Julie Jordan. They marry, but Billy abandons his job in a fit of pride and is at a complete loss to figure out what to do with his life and his wife.

His frustration leads to brief, intermittent violence. "I didn't beat her," he protests when accused of abusing Julie, "I just hit her." Billy doesn't believe himself to be a brutal man, but he is a desperate man. When he learns that Julie is pregnant, he allows an unsavory friend to lure him into a plot to rob and murder one of the town's wealthiest citizens.

Carousel is best when it addresses the circumstances of the Billy-Julie relationship, and most irritating when it indulges in cornpone scenes of life in small-town Maine around 1900. "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" is a catchy tune, but neither it nor the awful "Real Nice Clambake" choral number does anything to advance the story or set the scene in a way that isn't a little insulting to Down Easters. That said, the show does include two of Rodgers' most memorable melodies--"If I Loved You" and "You'll Never Walk Alone"--plus a tremendously innovative, big soliloquy for Billy that brilliantly ignores most of the conventions of musical theater circa 1945. When a company takes it seriously enough, Carousel is still quite a good show.

The UA production is serious without being heavy-handed and without neglecting the necessary comic elements. Some of the acting in the secondary roles is broader than would be ideal for Dixon's conception, but the cast still manages to put the show across just fine. The singing tends to be good, and Ben Crawford as Billy is outstanding, particularly in his emotionally turbulent soliloquy. As an actor, though, Crawford seems a little unsettled, especially compared to his fine work as Jud in Oklahoma! and John Wilkes Booth in Assassins. His Billy rarely seems dangerous; he's more like a little boy who finds himself suddenly all grown up and doesn't know what to do with his physical strength or his new emotional complexity.

More settled interpretively are the other major players, including Alison Pahler as Julie, Sarah Spigelman as her sidekick, Lezlee Benninger as the carousel owner, Luke Bishop as the man who lures Billy to his doom and David Olsen as the figure who leads Billy to his redemption. The instrumental ensemble was a little rough on opening night, but will surely tighten up and smooth out over time.

Over at Live Theatre Workshop, Kristi Loera and Terry Erbe play Barbara and David, two sophisticated and complacent New York gallery owners whose lives are disrupted when they take in Barbara's very-Jewish mother in Social Security. This 1986 comedy by Andrew Bergman--best known as a collaborator on Blazing Saddles and the author of such screenplays as The In-Laws, The Freshman and Honeymoon in Vegas--launches itself with a hilarious first act, drastically loses its momentum in the second, then rallies for a satisfying conclusion.

Bergman makes you think this is going to be a comedy about a mother from hell turning her daughter's life upside down; in the end, it is, but not in the goofball way we anticipate. It seems that the mother, Sophie (Emily Chamberlain), at age 80. has basically been entombed in the household of her other daughter, the dowdy and repressed Trudy (Jodi Rankin), and Trudy's nebbish husband, Martin (Jeremy Thompson). When the meddlesome Trudy and Martin rush off to save their daughter from a life of sin in college, they dump Sophie into Barbara and David's apartment for who knows how long.

Yes, there's a scene in which Sophie kvetches and is generally recalcitrant, but Bergman then swerves in a completely different direction. Sophie falls in love, and that changes everything--and makes her middle-aged daughters realize how routine, and in Trudy's case empty, their own married love lives have become.

For all his sympathy toward two, maybe all three of his female characters, Bergman obviously loves the flippant David the best; the play stops dead at the beginning of the second act, from which David is mostly absent, and which involves the most predictable old-Jewish-mother shtick. We desperately want David to come back onstage, not just because the character livens things up, but because Erbe plays him with exactly the right low-key sauciness; Erbe is all the more effective for not trying to sell every line.

The cast and director Bruce Bieszki avoid the facile Neil Simon approach to Manhattan-Jewish comedy, and offer a production of easy wit and solid characterization. Just don't give up in the second act; the payoff will come. Rest assured that in Social Security, the check is in the mail.