Corrections or additions?
This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 12, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Drama Review: `Carnival!’
At the end of last season, the New Jersey Shakespeare
Festival made a diverting digression from classic plays with "The
Fantasticks," the famously whimsical and long-running musical
by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones. The oddly delicate show, which opened
inconspicuously Off-Broadway in 1960, became a hit that ran for 40
years. And it also proved a resounding hit with Shakespeare Festival
audiences. That show’s success may have inspired artistic director
Bonnie J. Monte to look ahead to 1961 for her next musical "Carnival!,"
another oddly delicate offering, which opens the Shakespeare Festival’s
40th anniversary season.
"Carnival," by composer Bob Merrill and book writer Michael
Steward, was based on the 1953 film "Lili." The musically
and dramatically demanding musical play, is both a hit and miss affair
for the adventurous Monte, who shows assurance and invention in her
first musical undertaking as director. But she also makes some major
miscalculations, particularly in trying to turn a seriously intended
musical play into a shtick-filled musical comedy. This is most evident
in her lack of faith in the seriousness of the four-sided plot and
one that demands equal dramatic weight assigned to the four romantically-propelled
The story of an orphaned, slightly mentally-challenged French girl,
who runs away from home and is awakened to love and life in a small
economically challenged circus, is a charmer. Notwithstanding the
almost operatically scaled score, the intimacy and delicacy of the
story fits the festival’s stage like a glove, and Monte uses it to
eye-filling advantage. Two parallel stories are entwined in typical
musical theater fashion. One involves the innocent Lili (Kate Dawson)
and her infatuation with and dependence upon Paul Berthalet (Robert
Cuccioli), an embittered puppeteer, a former dancer permanently handicapped
by war injuries.
The other plot concerns Marco the Magnificent (Paul Mullins), an egocentric
womanizer, and his on-again off-again relationship with the Incomparable
Rosalie (Tina Stafford). Thrown into the mix of mixed up misfits are
the puppets, whose sass, wit, and wisdom bespeak the hearts of the
humans. As we wait (for the inevitable) for Paul to open up his heart
to Lili and for Rosalie to make up her mind whether to marry a gentle
veterinarian from Munich or face the future with Marco, we listen
to lots of lovely tunes. The show’s famous tune is "Love Makes
the World Go Round."
Monte’s direction smartly makes no claim or attempt to replicate the
original director Gower Champion’s legendary staging. To her credit,
Monte, aided by Keely Garfield’s athletic choreography, keeps the
show moving seamlessly and maintaining a nice balancing act between
the music and dramatic action. She has incorporated some rather affecting
notions about how the show’s puppets are portrayed, in this case by
Another nice touch is the way the sweet and tawdry aspects of circus
life are intertwined. Check out the Bluebird Girls as forerunners
of the decadent "Cabaret" cuties.
As background for Molly Reynolds’ affectionately gaudy turn-of-the-century
costumes and Steven Rosen’s particularly effective atmospheric lighting,
is scenic designer Janie Howland’s expressionistic setting framed
by clusters of masks, its rows of hanging carnival lights, and canvas
curtains completing the look for B. F. Schlegel’s (Bernie Sheredy)
poverty row "Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris."
Lili is supposed to be plain, but Dawson can’t help being pretty or
even considerably older than the part calls for. If Dawson, who made
a good impression appearing with Cuccioli at the festival in "Enter
The Guardsman," has to work hard at looking naive and insecure,
we can’t help being ultimately captivated by her loveliness and her
pure lyrical voice. Her performance does grow richer as the show progresses.
She may not be perfectly cast in the role that was originally played
on Broadway by the young prodigy Anna-Maria Albergthetti, but I was
ultimately willing to suspend my disbelief and be persuaded by her.
If Lili isn’t quite persuasive in her first character number "Mira,"
in which she tells us of the small comforting town she comes from,
she becomes more so with her adoration of the puppets, with whom her
relationship is more affecting than with the humans. This is characterized
in the charming "Everybody Likes You," as sung by Lili to
Carrot Top, everyone’s favorite puppet.
The puppets, including a fox and a walrus, are an especially witty
and funny group, with a special "brava" to the haughty and
hilarious diva puppet who recalls singing "high M above L."
Cuccioli has a fine and resonant voice and does a super job of incorporating
Paul’s distress and sorrow into his principal aria "Her Face,"
and later in counterpoint to Lili’s "I Hate Him."
Although Marco is supposed to be suave and sexy, Monte has encouraged
Mullins to portray him as a black mustached buffoon as outrageously
caricatured as any villain in an old melodrama. This makes Lili’s
infatuation with him totally unbelievable. The miscast Mullins, however,
is mercifully more restrained in the second act and earns the laughs
he gets with the comically gifted Stafford in their on-stage magic
act duet "Always, Always You."
Even more amusing is Stafford’s show stopping "Humming,"
in which she outs Marco’s bent for indiscretions. She gets some fine
assistance from Sheredy’s anxiety-ridden Schlegel.
Jacquot, Paul’s assistant, is a minor character, but in the dexterous
hands of Michael Medeiros he taps our hearts, particularly in his
extended miming solo in "Grand Imperial Cirque De Paris."
In general, the cast of 20, including an array of eccentric roustabouts
(one on stilts), entertains us with their antics.
If Monte is misguided by trying to make a rather dark show light (a
show where the puppets stop Lili in her attempted suicide), she confirms
a gifted instinct for the complexities of musical theater. Monte gets
able assistance also from the excellent musical direction of Jan Rosenberg,
and the nine-member orchestra hidden behind the set.
My suggestion: To keep going chronologically. The year 1962 was another
good one. How about producing "No Strings," the too long neglected
musical by Richard Rodgers to open next season?
— Simon Saltzman
Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600. $32 to $51.
Performances continue to June 30.
a celebration of the art and alchemy of theater, continues through
December, 2002, with three plays by or based on Shakespeare, and two
lesser-known plays of mystery.
directed by Gabriel Barre is on the mainstage July 9 to 28.
of Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century tale of sorcery, love, and youth,
directed by Paul Mullins, August 6 to 25.
of human existence, directed by Bonnie Monte, continues September
3 to 29.
festival’s younger director, Brian Crowe, runs October 29 to November
Night’s Dream , a fantasy for family audiences adapted from Shakespeare
and directed by Joe Discher, onstage December 3 to 29.
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