What drew me to Michael Weller’s world premiere of Jericho by the Attic Theater Company at The Wild Project was the idea of seeing a new treatment of Ferenc Molnár’s play Liliom before seeing the other more famous musical adaptation later this season. The 1909 Hungarian play is the complex and brutal love story that inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein to write the wildly praised musical, Carousel, the 1945 musical that I’m so excited to see when it opens again on Broadway. Liliom is a dark and turbulent story set in a rough turn-of-the-century fairground in Budapest. And while Carousel takes place on the lovely seaside of Maine, Weller, who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay of the movie, ‘Ragtime’, has transplanted his telling of this tale onto the boardwalk of Coney Island in 1932. Within that framework, he attempts, fairly successfully to explore the thin line between love and aggression, without a song to be sung. It’s an exciting opportunity to see a parallel universe of Carousel, a musical that is widely known but almost completely unknown to me, and while this is not the exact root of this musical, this 2014 adaptation holds a compelling light to the combustible love at the heart of all three of these stories. Unfortunately, this shaky production, playing out during the desperate days of the Great Depression, feels unfocused and hard to hold on to.
A tough and cocky carousel barker by the name of Jericho, played valiantly by Vasile Flutur (Piper Theatre’s Frankenstein) meets a young and foolishly daring Julie, played by the steady Hannah Sloat (LCT’s War Horse) on the boardwalk late one evening. Julie is smitten from the moment this broad shouldered rascal enters, although one may wonder why. Ignoring her excitable friend, Mary, played broadly and inventively by Ginna M. Doyle (Yale’s Wild Party), Julie decides to forgo returning to the Catholic Young Women’s Inn where she works as a maid, giving up her livelihood and home with one quick decision. Julie throws it all up in the air with the strong hope that Jericho will step in and grab hold before it falls and smashes to the ground. He does catch her as she falls into a deeply devoted state of irrational and somewhat obsessional love, but unfortunately, he does not have the fortitude, brains, or the drive to actually stop them both from crashing down onto and under the boardwalk.
Surrounding these two mismatched lovers is a cast of strange oddball characters unsteadily directed by Laura Braza (Attic’s Moonchildren) with an overly exaggerated edge playing to the humor at the expense of the darkness. Erinn Holmes (Fulton’s Disgraced) as Mrs. Hendricks overplays almost every line as if she is giving us a big wink at every moment. It doesn’t help that much of the script is heavy-handed and comically over the top, with lines that seem to drop out of nowhere, but Holmes fairs much better at the heavenly overworked Judge, finding a more solid foot in the spiritual world than on the boardwalk. Jack Sochet (Walker Space’s Pericles) plays numerous parts with wild abandonment, and while the troublemaker, Tynk is fun to watch and is his best invention, his Irish cop fails to register as anything remotely believable with an accent that slips and stubbles all around him. Jerzy Gwiazdowski (Broadway’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore) does his best as the dark hovering Angel of Death, or something narratively similar, as he ushers us into this Coney Island world in an overly directed and stylized opening, and continues to guide us as needed by donning numerous character hats throughout. One can only wonder if Weller is suggesting that this is the hand of God pushing their tragic fate forward. His presence is fascinating but underused and unfocused until the final thoughtful ending. Broadway veteran Stephanie Pope (Pippen) steps onto this smaller East Village stage as a woman equally transfixed by the brutal Jericho, but seems to have her eyes more widely open to what can be expected from her abusive former employee. Her stage presence is a gift to this play, but while creating something slightly more real to grab hold of (even though the logic is hard to fathom), her portrayal feels out of place amongst the more exaggerated characters surrounding her.
On a distracting and clumsy set by designer Julia Noulin-Mérat (Opera Omaha’s Bluebeard’s Castle), with costumes by Bevin McNally (Colorblind’s Gruesome Playground Injuries) and lighting by Daniel B. Chapman (Acting Co’s On the Verge), Mary’s unwavering passionate love and devotion for Jericho needs to be the solid support beams that this entire play stands upon, but somehow we never quite believe that such a smart and head strong woman would ever be able to look past and accept Jericho’s combustable violence and unfocused impulsiveness. The two actors, along with everyone else in this cast, including a sweet performance by Noelle Franco (Center Stage’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses) as daughter, Lisa, puts all their energy into trying to make us see Julie’s blind eyed devotion, but the direction just never feels strong or clear enough to support the complicated idea that a slap can sometimes feel like a kiss. Without that heat and structure, Jericho never feels quite intense enough to save it from the wild tossing of Julie’s future and fortune into the wind, hoping to be caught in some strong arms before crashing to the ground. I’m not sure how the revival of Carousel is going to pull off this kind of obsessional and abusive love, especially in the current climate of the #MeToo and #Timesup movement, because, to be frank, who wants to forgive anyone slapping the magnificent and lovely Jessie Mueller, regardless of her ability to make us forgive and forget. But I’m hoping Mueller (Waitress) and the powerful Joshua Henry (The Scottsboro Boys) can weave that difficult web in Broadway’s revival of Carousel better than Weller’s Jericho, because I really do want to get pulled into this famous dark fairytale and be taken on that intenseride around the Carousel. Maybe songs will help.