Theater review: Scenery steals the show in Serenbe’s ‘Carousel’

At the very first sight of it, the sheerly spectacular setting of Serenbe Playhouse’s “Carousel” could take your breath away.

Like all of the company’s “site-specific” shows, it’s performed outdoors amid the verdant environment of Serenbe, a rustic community located in secluded Chattahoochee Hills (some 35 miles south of Atlanta).

In previous productions, artistic director Brian Clowdus has capitalized on different open spaces in the area to transport audiences to a Woodstock festival of sorts (for “Hair”), or to give them singing cowboys on real horseback (in “Oklahoma!”). Plays with such titles as “A Walk in the Woods” and “Ten Mile Lake” literally took place in the woods and on a lake, with natural atmosphere to spare. It wouldn’t be altogether surprising if, later this summer, he finds a unique way to work an actual helicopter into pivotal moments of “Miss Saigon.”

For now, on a large patch of land known as the Inn Meadow, Clowdus’ new staging of the old Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Carousel” re-creates the sprawling fairgrounds where the story unfolds (scenic design credited to Adam Koch) — replete with a functioning merry-go-round and Ferris wheel, sundry arcade and concession stands, roving carnival acts (a bearded lady and a snake handler, conjoined twins and jugglers on stilts), right down to the “port-a-potties.”

Clowdus reunites many of the principal cast members from his 2014 hit, “Oklahoma!” — some more wisely than others. It isn’t much of a stretch, for example, to see Jessica Miesel going from one scatterbrained case of comic relief (Ado Annie) to another slightly less ditzy one (Carrie Pipperidge). But, for all of his athletic dancing abilities and unbridled buffoonery (as Will Parker before), the diminutive Austin Tijerina doesn’t make a suitably menacing or imposing heavy (as Jigger Craigin here).

Playing star-crossed lovers for the second time around, Edward McCreary (as the ill-fated carousel barker Billy Bigelow) and Kelly Chapin Martin (as the lovelorn, long-suffering Julie Jordan) beautifully sing their famous duet, “If I Loved You” (accompanied by musical director Chris Brent Davis and a seven-piece orchestra). Acting-wise, though, both of them seemed more comfortable playing the romantic comedy of that earlier show than they do the romantic drama of this one.

Second leads Miesel and Daniel Burns (quite fine as her husband) also score with their own duet, “When the Children Are Asleep.” Other classic tunes include “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Soliloquy,” “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’” and “June is Bustin’ Out All Over.” Still, the musical’s biggest highlight is an Act 2 ballet sequence, choreographed by Bubba Carr (with a nod to Agnes De Mille), and elegantly danced by Brittany Ellis and Nathan Lubeck.

There’s more to the ultimate success of a show, however, than an innovative stylistic concept alone. Despite the full-scale, three-dimensional grandeur of its surroundings, Serenbe’s “Carousel” feels strangely halfhearted and flat, essentially overshadowed by all the trappings.

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