Charming, Warm and Romantic

By David A. Rosenberg

It’s a perfect fit: a small-scale show and Goodspeed’s intimate space. The charming, warm, romantic musical, “Carnival,” slides smoothly onto the East Haddam stage, with only occasional slip-ups. A large-scale rendering would ruin this slender, tender tale of a provincial French circus with delusions of grandeur and director Darko Tresnjak wisely eschews the grandiose.

The show has a complicated history: Helen Deutsch’s screenplay for the enchanting M-G-M film, “Lili,” was adapted from Paul Gallico’s Saturday Evening Post story, “The Man Who Hated People,” which was in turn inspired by the outstanding TV program, “Kukla, Fran and Ollie.” Gallico later expanded his unsentimental story into an even tougher novella, “Love of Seven Dolls.” For this production, Francine Pascal pares down and rearranges the original libretto that her late brother Michael Stewart wrote.

 It’s the tale of a naïve country girl, Lili, an orphan who leaves home in search of a family friend. At a tacky circus, she’s almost seduced by a sleazy souvenir barker, thinks she’s in love with the studly magician, Marco the Magnificent, and has a love-hate relationship with a morose puppeteer, Paul Berthalet. Both Lili and Paul must learn to turn hate into love.

Confused, rejected, she contemplates suicide, but is talked out of it by Carrot Top, one of Paul’s hand puppets. Through the empathetic Carrot Top,  temperamental diva Marguerite, sly fox Reynaldo and bumbling walrus Henry, Lili is transported to a fantasy world yet one very much rooted in reality. Her interaction with the puppets is so spontaneous, so trusting and genuine that she becomes the shoddy circus’ star attraction.

Credit Robert Smythe’s puppet design and staging for making the cloth creatures come to life. Something about puppets gives them startling believability; they’re like animals in their innocence, illuminating mysteries of the personality that would otherwise be hidden.

Adam Monley’s Paul anchors the evening. His acting of the misanthropic puppeteer is heartbreaking; his singing is galvanizing. As Lili, Lauren Worsham sings gloriously and acts the waif with wide-eyed optimism. If she doesn’t quite trace the girl’s development from adolescence to maturity, it’s at least partly because of the direction.

Tresnjak’s pacing of Act One is glacial and features a jarring nightmare sequence with huge mirrors right out of “Man of La Mancha.” Worhsam is further hampered by her Act Two costumes. Conversations with the puppets have become the circus’ star act, but it’s their naivete that attracts customers. Designer Fabio Toblini dresses her like a bloated Shirley Temple, all brightly colored crinoline skirts, her hair topped with a huge pink ribbon. Presumably, the idea is to bump up the act but the costume is not only ludicrous, it goes against the very reason the puppet act is successful: its simplicity. It obliterates the show’s arc, the gradual awakening of Lili from girlhood to womanhood.

Nathan Klau is an engaging Jacquot, Paul’s loyal assistant. His big number, “Cirque de Paris,” is beautifully staged by choreographer Peggy Hickey. The rest of the cast, particularly the athletic chorus, is just fine.

Bob Merrill’s music and lyrics are appropriately unobtrusive, never going for the big Broadway sound that would be so inappropriate for such a delicate story. “Mira,” “Humming, “Her Face” and “Always, Always You” are lovely songs.

But the breakout number is “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round,” sung not only during the show but a cappella at the curtain call. It’s worth waiting for.

This review appeared in The Hour, Thursday, Aug. 12


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