Carnival, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review

That’’s what I needed, just what I needed, something hanging around my neck; a helpless thing depending on me. Depending on me to bear its burden, clothe and feed it; practically carry it. A grown up girl with the mind of a child. --- Sung by Paul in his Act II aria "Her Face."

Lili & some of the puppets
(Photo: Jerry Dalia)
There is a dark surface as well as an even darker subtext to the 1961 musical Carnival that composer Bob Merrill and book writer Michael Stewart based on the 1953 film Lili. But I suspect that its depiction of a young plain-looking simple-minded waif given a home and job among seedy impoverished carnival folk has never been addressed with such an unmercifully dour and relentlessly dreary approach as it is in the staging by director Erika Schmidt for the Paper Mill Playhouse. Her concept may please musical theater sophisticates, but not necessarily the family audience that is usually drawn to this show.

Early on, we are prepared for Schmidt’s unsparingly grim vision as Grobert (Richard Pruitt), the carnival’s souvenir peddler attacks the presumably naÌve Lili (Elena Shaddow) and puts his hand up her dress only minutes after she arrives looking for a job. There is no denying the often crude and callous reality of carnival life. But this kind of unsettling sexual assault also suggests that Schmidt wants to take this musical play beyond what might be more subtly implied.

Lili is saved in the nick of time by the intervention of Marco the Magnificent (Paul Schoeffler), the troupe’s rakish resident magician, but there is no saving the musical that continues on a downward spiral of grim getting grimmer. Yes, Carnival is musically and dramatically demanding, but it also needs to balance its provocative psychological propellants with a bit of whimsy and wistfulness, two aspects in woefully short supply.

Although grounded in sentimentality and pathos, this odd but potentially endearing musical from the golden age requires a firm hand, one that can stay true to its serious intentions and still infuse it with bursts of charm. Notwithstanding Schmidt’s earnestness in this regard, there is a serious lack of delicacy even in the lighter moments, specifically Lili’s fantasy Beautiful Candy that is climaxed needlessly and clumsily by a shower of confetti.

Schmidt puts most of her faith in the four-sided plot with its demand for assigning equal dramatic weight to the four romantically motivated principals. The intimacy of the two parallel stories is entwined in typical musical theater fashion. One involves the innocent Lili and her infatuation with Marco, an egocentric womanizer and his on again off again relationship with The Incomparable Rosalie (Jennifer Allen). an egocentric womanizer and his on again off again relationship with The Incomparable Rosalie (Jennifer Allen). The other relates to her dependence upon Paul Berthalet (Charlie Pollock), an embittered puppeteer and a former dancer permanently handicapped by war injuries.

Thrown into the mix of misery-perpetuating misfits are the puppets, whose sass, wit and wisdom presumably bespeak the hearts of the humans. As we wait Paul to inevitably open up his heart to Lili and for Rosalie to make up her mind whether to marry a wealthy veterinarian from Munich or face the future with Marco, we listen to a lovely, almost operatically scaled score with lots of lovely tunes -- the most famous being" Love Makes the World Go Round."

As in original director Gower Champion’s legendary staging, Schmidt’s staging is also conceptually spare -- but also unnecessarily plodding. The measured pacing wouldn’t seem amiss for Long Days Journey into Night. Set designer Christopher Barreca and costumer Michelle R. Phillips define the tawdry aspects of the carnival with a minimum of color. Lily is supposed to be plain, so let’s just say that her drab frock further validates the pall that, with the help of Donald Holder’s lighting, hovers over the entire show.

It is fortunate that Shaddow turns Lili’s insecurities into lyrical flights with a voice as bright and clear as a bell. This is the role that was originally played on Broadway by 25 year-old prodigy Anna-Maria Albergthetti who won the 1962 Tony for her performance. If Shaddow is barely persuasive in her first character number, "Mira," in which she tells us of the small comforting town from which she hails, she becomes more so with her adoration of the puppet, with whom her relationship is supposed to be more affecting than with the humans. However, there is a grievous misconception in the use of larger-than-life puppets, virtually mannequins rather than hand puppets. Lili’s affection for the puppets is based on her belief in them, particularly the feelings that are expressed to her by Paul through her favorite Carrot Top. Although artfully crafted and nicely handled, these puppets have a nightmarish quality and an imposing presence that does not support Lili’s delightful song "Everybody Likes You," as sung to the unicycle-riding Carrot Top. The similarly looming puppets -- including a fox (Drew Cortese), a walrus (Eric Michael Gillett), and haughty diva (Benjie Randall), who recalls singing "high M above L," -- also come across as more sexually insinuating than my memory recalls. I could be wrong.

While Shaddow’s performance grows richer as the show progresses, this is not the case for the look of B. F. Schlegel’s (Nick Wyman) carnival which remains distinctly poverty row. A fire-eater Jason Babinsky, an aerialist Mam Smith and fellow acrobats Michael H. Fielder and Hector Flores enliven the melodramatic doings with their acrobatic divertissements.

Pollock has a sturdy, resonant voice and does a good job of incorporating Paul’s perpetual distress and sorrow into his principal aria "Her Face," and later in counter point to Lili’s "I Hate Him." Marco is supposed to be suave and sexy and since Schoeffler pulls this off with élan, it at least, makes Lili’s infatuation with him somewhat believable. He earns the laughs he gets with the tempestuous Ms Allen in their on-stage magic act duet "Always, Always You."

Jacquot, Paul’s assistant is a minor character, but in the charge of Eric Michael Gillett he earns our affection, particularly in the musical’s best number, the playful umbrella-twirling "Grand Imperial Cirque De Paris," in which he is joined by the male ensemble. Perhaps feeling affection for the show’s most minor principal tells us something. The plight of this mentally challenged French girl, who runs away from home and is awakened to love and life in a small economically challenged circus, is meant to be hopeful and emotionally unsettling, not boring and tedious.

Music: Bob Merrill
Book: Michael Stewart
Based on material by Helen Deutsch
Original Production Directed and Choreographed by Gower Champion
Directed by Erica Schmidt
Choreography by Peter Pucci,
Cast: Starring Charlie Pollock as Paul, Jennifer Allen as Rosalie and Elena Shaddow as Lili; also, Paul Schoeffler as Marco, Eric Michael Gillett as Jacquot and Nick Wyman as Schlagel. Ensemble Jason Babinsky, Alexander Cassens, Albert Christmas, Michael Fielder, Hector Flores, David Garry, Vincent German, Nikka Lanzarone, Richard Pruitt, Benji Randall, Julia Sann, Mam Smith and Mindy Wallace.
Set Design: Christopher Barreca
Costume Design:Michelle R. Phillips
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Sound Design: Randy Hansen
Hair, wigs, make-up: Jason Hayes Puppet Design: Jesse Mooney Bullock
Puppet Coach: Frank Maugeri
Circus Effects: Chic Silber
Magic Design: Peter Samelson
Musical Direction: Tom Helm.
Running time: Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission
The Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive in Millburn, NJ. (973) 376-4343 or
From 3/08/06 to 4/09/06; opening 3/12/06. .
Tickets: $19-$68
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on March 12th performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Direct From Vienna/.Rosalie, Schlegel, and Marchers
  • A Very Nice Man/Lili
  • Fairyland/Puppets
  • I’ve Got to Find a Reason/Paul
  • Mira/.Lili
  • Reprise: Direct From Vienna/Marchers
  • A Sword and a Rose and a Cape/Marco and Roustabouts
  • Humming/Rosalie and Schlegel
  • Yes, My Heart/Lili and Carnival People
  • Everybody Likes You/Paul
  • Magic Magic/Marco, Rosalie and Lili
  • Tanz Mit Mir/Bluebird Girls
  • Carnival Ballet/Lili and Carnival People
  • Reprise/ Mira, Lili
  • Love Makes The World Go Round/Lili Then Puppets
Act Two
  • Yum Ticky/Lili and Puppets
  • We’re Rich/Lili and Puppets
  • Reprise: Love Makes the World Go Round/Lili and Puppets
  • Beautiful Candy/Lili, Puppets and Carnival People
  • Her Face/Paul
  • Grand Imperial Cirque De Paris/Jaquot & Carnival People
  • Ballet/Lili, Marco, and Carnival People
  • I Hate Him (Reprise: Her Face)/Lili and Paul
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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