Liliom, Ferenc Molnar’s play on which Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel was based, is now over 100 years old. In its first full-scale revival in New York in many decades, now at the Celebration of Whimsy (C.O.W.) Theater in a straight-ahead production by the Beautiful Soup Theater Collective, the play feels very much of another era – a simple story, lacking irony, with realistic emotions written into “artful” dialogue and a moral of heavenly redemption. Those very qualities made it prime for transformation into a Broadway musical in 1945. (The play itself had a couple of Broadway runs too.)
Those same qualities make Liliom both endearing and frustrating today. Steven Carl McCasland, Artistic Director of the Beautiful Soup Theater, has, I gather, adapted the play by making some cuts, but he uses the original translation, credited to Benjamin Glazer, from the 1921 New York production. Thus the language is of the homey-poetry sort. When young Julie attracts Liliom’s attention, the envious Mrs. Muskat, the hard-assed but softhearted carousel owner, calls her a “shabby kitchenmaid,” while to Liliom – himself called “an artist, not a respectable man” – Julie is perpetually a “little pigeon.” Owing to the straightforward staging and a generally convincing cast, especially Morgan DeTogne’s exquisite performance as Julie, the first act sails solidly along.
An opening dumb show uses a simple circle of streamers to illustrate the carousel itself and the first encounter between teenage Julie and carnival barker Liliom, played by Gerrard Lobo. When the mystical spell lifts, we find Julie and her friend Marie (an effective and charming Sara Hymes) on a bench talking of their lives and loves. They inhabit a culture where just holding a man’s hand is nearly scandalous, even if plenty of hanky-panky goes on out of sight. But their long conversation about their romantic lives is pure charm, settling us comfortably into the old-fashioned flavor of the whole production.
The seeds of the story’s essential sadness are there almost from the beginning, though; Julie can’t really admit she loves Liliom even after they’ve moved in together, and he, fired from the carousel, gets frustrated and nasty and begins scheming with his low-life friend Ficsur (Julian Goza) to commit a robbery that may well turn into murder. Meanwhile, Julie reveals to Marie that he has hit her.
Since the musical kept the essentials of Molnar’s story, if you’re familiar with Carousel you’ll recognize those plot points as well as the supernatural follow-up to Liliom’s suicide. It’s with that latter segment, in the second act, that the story, the play, and the production go, as least to this modern sensibility, off the rails. Although a second dumb show is effective, paralleling the first but with zombie-like figures spinning the carousel instead of lively carnival characters, Liliom’s appearance before a heavenly magistrate feels just plain silly, and his opportunity to return to Earth unrecognized after a purgatorial period to redeem himself by doing a good deed resolves into a hurried wrap-up that makes Act II feel like a different and shriveled work. It brings to mind magical stories of yore – A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Ghost – but this part of the story, in this telling at least, doesn’t convince. An epilogue is all the second act feels like, and it doesn’t hold water, not only because it doesn’t feel real – it’s fantasy, after all – but because it doesn’t feel earned, and since the first act is so well and solidly done, I fault the play itself for that.
With all that said, the first act is the bulk of the play and it’s well worth seeing as a charming, emotionally charged period piece for which McCasland and his cast evidence full respect. Great fans of Carousel will also be interested in the many similarities between the Hungarian original and the New England seaside setting of the musical, as well as the differences, with, for example, the former’s references to the Jewishness of some of the characters. Liliom runs through March 9. Visit Showclix for tickets.