by Geary Danihy
What do you do if you are charged with bringing a somewhat bland, banal product to market? Why, you bring in spin doctors to manufacture luster and create the illusion of excitement. That’s exactly what director Darko Tresnjak and choreographer Peggy Hickey have done with “Carnival!,” Goodspeed Opera House’s latest offering. Perhaps sensing that the musical had as much substance as cotton candy, the two have done everything in their power to make the evening as entertaining as possible, and by and large they have succeeded, if only in diverting the audience’s attention from the fact that there’s really not much of weight going on up there on the stage.
The origins of “Carnival!” can be found, oddly enough, in the 1950s TV show “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” which featured Fran Allison and a host of puppets created by Burr Tillstrom. Author Paul Gallico picked up on the idea of a human being interacting with puppets in his short story, “The Man Who Hated People,” which he expanded into a novella entitled “Love of Seven Dolls.” Producer David Merrick was enchanted with the work and oversaw the creation of “Carnival!,” calling on Bob Merrill to write the music and lyrics and Michael Stewart to adapt material by Helen Deutsch for the book. The well-received show ran for 719 performances on Broadway.
The story is simplicity itself. Lili (Lauren Worsham), a young woman recently orphaned, travels to the south of France in hopes of finding work with a friend of her father in a carnival. The friend, alas, has died, but she eventually finds employment at the urgings of Marco the Magnificent (Mike McGowan), a dime-store magician and dedicated lothario. She also draws the attention of Paul (Adam Monley), a misanthropic puppeteer who falls in love with her. The central question: will Lili end up in the arms of Marco or Paul? That’s about it.
The cast is eager to please, perhaps a bit too eager. For most of the first act, Worsham gives us a Lili so delighted at landing a job and so totally in love with life that she can barely control her giddiness: she shakes, she does little tap-dances of joy and repeatedly hugs herself. Diabetics be warned – this is an extremely sugar-coated performance.
Playing against this over-abundance of joie de vivre, Monley’s character suffers from a romantic bi-polarity that is a bit difficult to take, for he is constantly berating poor, put-upon Lili, forcing her into Marco’s arms, and then bursting out in songs that detail just how much he loves the girl (when he’s not bemoaning his state in life). It’s difficult to warm to this character of extremes who can only express his true emotions via the various puppets he controls, puppets he uses to at first calm Lili’s fears and then to woo her. It’s a nice idea but the closing scenes of the first act draw out this puppet-human dynamic with so much cuteness that treacle seems to be dripping from the stage, and then Paul sings “Everybody Loves You” to his main puppet, Carrot Top, the point being that nobody loves poor Paul. As a lead-in to intermission it’s a real downer.
Act two opens with three numbers in which Lili, growing more confident, shares the stage with the puppets and the ensemble cast of dancers and acrobats. The numbers? “Yum Ticky Ticky Tum Tum,” “We’re Rich” and “Beautiful Candy.” Even Willy Wonka might find them a bit much.
As a sub-plot, we have Marco stringing along his long-suffering assistant, Rosalie (Michelle Blakely), cheating on her at will and then daring her to leave him. Again, the eagerness to please is evident here, for McGowan lays on the lounge-lizard routine a bit too thick, while Blakely camps it up as if she is auditioning for the role of Annie’s Miss Hannigan.
All in all, Goodspeed’s “Carnival!” is an exercise in excess. With dazzling costumes by Fabio Toblini, David Gordon’s colorful set intriguingly lit by John Lasiter, and dancers, jugglers and acrobats constantly awhirl, it’s difficult not to be swept up in it all. If you are, the following day you may have to go on a theatrical crash diet, for the show’s caloric content is extremely high. Prescription: see two Sondheim shows (perhaps “Sweeney” and “Company”) and call me in the morning.
“Carnival!” runs through Saturday. Sept. 18. For tickets or more information call 860-873-8668 or go to www.goodspeed.org.
(This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.)