When the musical “Carousel” opens at Hood River Valley High School Friday, it will debut with an opening scene unlike anything director Mark Steighner and the HRVHS theater department have ever tried before.
The first six minutes of the production are in the form of a movie that will be shown on a big screen that drops down center stage in Bowe Theater. Shot on 16mm film at Oaks Park amusement park in Portland, the opening scene sets the stage for the production, introducing all the main characters and setting up the prominent themes — all with no dialogue, just background music.
The scene is done just as it was in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original production of “Carousel” in 1945 — except that it’s on film.
“Even in the original, the opening is all visual,” Steighner said. “The characters come onto the stage and we see what relationships are taking place at the carnival.” It was “a brilliant idea” on the part of Rodgers and Hammerstein, according to Steighner, because within those few minutes, the audience grasps what the important relationships are.
“There’s no kind of back story needed,” Steighner said. “The details are already filled in.”
Filming the opening scene was an idea Steighner hatched while mulling over the difficulties of producing the musical within the limited confines of the Bowe Theater. Building an actual carousel for the set posed logistical problems — particularly since it would only be needed for the first few minutes of the production. As the musical proceeds, most of the scenes take place in and around a coastal Maine mill town.
Steighner contacted HRVHS graduate Chuck Riedl, now a film editor and director living in Los Angeles, and proposed that he film the opening segment at Oaks Park. Riedl accepted and flew to Oregon in September for a day of filming with the cast. (See Page A1 for a separate story about Riedl’s involvement in “Carousel.”)
“It’s definitely a unique element,” Steighner said. Producing “Carousel” is also unique in that it’s one of the most complex and challenging musicals the HRVHS drama department has ever staged. And given that this is the 30th musical Steighner has directed, that’s saying a lot.
“It’s much more challenging than ‘Les Misérables’ musically,” Steighner said, referring to last fall’s wildly successful HRVHS production. “Even though it’s not an opera, the way the music is used is much closer to opera.”
The characters also are “complex,” according to Steighner, and the themes the actors deal with “mature.”
“The characters are very real,” he said. “They’re real people and that’s really hard to play on stage.” The cast includes about 60 students; a few of the lead roles are comprised of “split” casts, played by two different students who will rotate shows. A full orchestra made up of adults from the community will provide the music.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original 1945 production of “Carousel” was set in the 1890s. A Broadway revival of the production in the 1990s also was set in that time period, but “got rid of a lot of the sentimentality” of the original, according to Steighner.
Steighner has chosen to set the HRVHS production in the 1940s because it’s easier for the cast — and the audience — to relate to.
“It resonates with the time because so many men were lost in World War II,” he said. “Women were raising children by themselves, women had more freedom.” Both are central themes of “Carousel.”
Like the 1990s revival, Steighner’s production brings out the “rawness” of the times and the characters.
“The (main) character of Billy Bigelow is really a young James Dean punk,” Steighner said.
The scenes of “Carousel” ring particularly true because, as Steighner points out, this is one of the first HRVHS musical productions where the characters are about the same age as the students.
“The kids have really done a great job,” Steighner said.