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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

principals.

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

humans.

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

Carnival!, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, F.M.

Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600. $32 to $51.

Performances continue to June 30.

The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival 40th anniversary season,

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.

Pericles, Shakespeare’s rarely-produced and earliest romance,

directed by Gabriel Barre is on the mainstage July 9 to 28.

Following in August is The Illusion, Tony Kushner’s adaptation

of Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century tale of sorcery, love, and youth,

directed by Paul Mullins, August 6 to 25.

Enrico IV, Luigi Pirandello’s tragicomic examination

of human existence, directed by Bonnie Monte, continues September

3 to 29.

The Tempest, Shakespeare’s masterpiece directed by the

festival’s younger director, Brian Crowe, runs October 29 to November

24.

The season ends with a holiday production titled A Midwinter

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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