note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
I hope you see Michael Stewart and Bob Merrill’s classic two-act musical, “Carnival,” which ends July 22 at Gloucester Stage Company. Artistic Director Eric C. Engel, the cast, musicians, and crew’s valiant efforts restored the magic, seaminess, shoddiness, and honkytonk of traveling carnies’ lives, closely sharing it with audiences by sitting and roaming nearby, connecting through frequent eye contact or by directly addressing theatergoers.
“Carnival” isn’t a glorification of the circus-carnival world. It’s more of an indictment of the damaged, misfit, amoral performers who hide their shortcomings behind their masks and glittery costumes, wearily traveling from village to town for that smell of the grease paint and roar of the crowd.
Paul Farwell as Schlegel, alcoholic carnival owner-manager, staggers around, resplendent at times in Gail Buckley’s costumes, while camouflaging his paunch and balding pate. The traveling carnival isn’t exactly the Imperial Cirque de Paris. The small troupe has its own hidden dangers, especially for unsuspecting, naive small-town girls like Lili, (Victoria Thornsbury) who left her hometown, hoping to get a job selling souvenirs, or performing simple tasks.
When Lili initially meets carnival vender Grobert (Spencer Glass), she thinks he’s “A Very Nice Man,” but quickly learns otherwise. Innocence and naivete collides with scheming exploitation, and the battle between good and evil begins. As Lili sweetly sings about her small town of “Mira” and how “Love Makes the World Go Round,” sleazy Grobert and slimy magician Marco the Magnificent (Daniel Robert Sullivan) can’t wait to deflower her.
Inspired by Lili’s sweetness, purity, and kindness, embittered puppeteer Paul, (Gus Curry) injured war hero, falls in love with her, but hides his feelings behind his puppets. Angrily, he watches Marco lure Lili away, like a sly fox enticing a duckling to slaughter. She does, however, meet a really nice man, assistant puppeteer Jacquot, whom Doug Lockwood plays with sympatico and caring. While helping and guiding Lili, he soothes and reasons with Paul, whom Gus Curry nicely portrays, limping believably, and angrily stomping around on his injured leg that ended his career as a star dancer on Parisian stages. Paul pours out his feelings of affection towards Lili through his puppets.
Marco’s longtime girlfriend and magic assistant, The Incomparable Rosalie (Shannon Lee Jones), isn’t happy about Marco’s attention to Lili, either.
As Lili awkwardly settles in, later finding a happy spot and success interacting on stage with Paul’s puppets, this songfest steams along to a happy ending.
This 1961 musical, directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, starred newcomer Anna Maria Alberghetti as Lili, (for which she won a Tony); and was based on the 1953 hit MGM film “Lili,” with Leslie Caron, Mel Ferrer, Jean Pierre Aumont, Kurt Kasznar, and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Although the stage version was rarely produced, a 2002 revival resurrected it, with versatile Anne Hathaway portraying Lili, Brian Stokes Mitchell as Paul, featuring Jim Henson’s puppets, in New York City. Its popularity has gained momentum.
Todd C. Gordon and his six musicians admirably accompanied this cast, with tinkly, magical melodies and blaring carny parade-type bluster. Sometimes, the musicians overpowered Victoria Thornbury’s lovely voice; but for the most part, she released her full power, especially during solos, and while accompanied by puppets, Carrot Top, Marguerite, Horrible Harry, and Reynardo, in “Love Makes the World Go Round,” “Mira,” and rejoicing with them in “Yum Ticky,” “We’re Rich,” and “Beautiful Candy”.
Thornsbury has a wide-eyed, fresh-faced innocence that steals the hearts of Paul and theatergoers. Like Lili, her singing voice is enchanting. Thornbury and co-star Gus Curry as Paul Berthalet make beautiful music together in their dueling duet, “Her Face,” and “I Hate Him,”while Jacquot and company grandly celebrate the puppet show’s success and their hope for making the big time, in “Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris”.
Although the stage is small, choreographer Jodi Leigh Allen impressively created high-stepping, acrobatic, ensemble numbers; and Russ Swift’s lighting punctuated mood-shifting sinister numbers, comical arrangements and lighthearted scenes.