The stage is empty when the audience enters, save for a ghost light dimly shining its bulb. The walls are painted pitch black. There are no curtains or teasers. In silence, a large metal door opens from upstage center, and through a foggy background, a weary looking man in a dark suit enters and slowly takes a seat. He opens a small case and removes his accordian, which has certainly seen better days. With barely an expression on his face, he softly plays a simple little tune. Others soon enter, some dressed in costumes that were no doubt dazzling at one time, but now seem rather faded and lifeless. As the orchestra gradually joins in, an imposingly tall, grim-faced man in a black suit and top hat takes a sip from his flask as he supervises the proceedings. On his command that they sing out the news that The Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris has come to town for seven days only (at popular prices), the bored and tired performers joylessly go through their motions. A couple sneaks off to the side to steal a few kisses and a few gropes. An acrobat nonchalantly flips in the air with a cigarette lazily dangling from his lips. Through it all, the lights remain dim and the mood remains bleak. Director Erica Schmidt is up to some very interesting stuff in The Paper Mill's new production of Carnival!.
It's nothing new these days to see older musicals reinterpreted in darker, edgier tones, but Carnival! has a great deal to gain by such a treatment. Although a big Broadway hit in 1961, running for nearly two years, it's never had a major revival despite a masterful score by Robert Merrill that juxtaposes childish charm against complex adult emotions, and a perfectly crafted book by Michael Stewart. Carnival! doesn't need to be fixed, but if not handled well the show's central romance can seem distasteful and its lead character can easily be seen as stupid and unsympathetic.
Based on the 1953 film, Lili (taken from Paul Gallico's novel, Love of Seven Dolls), Carnival! is the story of a newly-orphaned girl, Lili, from a tiny French town who ventures from her home for the first time in her life because a family friend who runs the carnival's souvenir stand has promised to take care of her. When she finally arrives she is told her new guardian died a month ago. With nowhere else to go she begs the new proprietor for a job and he, in turn, attempts to rape her. She's "rescued" by Marco the Magnificent, the dashing, womanizing magician who charms Lili with his tricks, which she is na´ve enough to believe are real. Marco gets her a job and she becomes a frequent private guest in his tent, much to the distress of his lover/assistant, The Incomparable Rosalie, who continues to adore him despite his infidelities.
Another attraction at the carnival is puppeteer Paul, formerly a famous dancer who irrevocably injured his leg while serving his country in wartime. Bitter from his bad luck, Paul can only express kindness and joy through his puppet creations, particularly the friendly Carrot Top. Attracted to Lili, Paul lashes out at her for her blind infatuation for Marco, and then tries to cheer her up through the puppets which she believes are real.
Do you see the problem here? Lili must appear young and na´ve enough to believe in magic and puppetry, yet seem old enough to counteract the ick factor of her being lusted after by two adult men and inspiring romantic feelings in another. She also must sing a rangy soprano score.
What Schmidt has done in this production, without noticeably changing the text, is bring the private world of carnival life out into the open. I suppose the popular shorthand explanation these days is that she turned the show Brechtian, but her interpretation does well to serve the material. These are poor, overworked, underpaid people who once had stars in their eyes, now living a life where sexual flings provide the only diversion from the boredom of performing the same act over and over again. Lili's innocence is seen through rolled eyes and her belief in fantasy can be interpreted as an emotional defense from someone who's one more disappointment away from committing suicide. It's a far cry from the way Gower Champion first directed the show but Schmidt's vision is a legitimate view of the material.
Except when it doesn't work.
There are minor problems in her staging that seem almost careless. Paul wears an elaborate leg brace, but never walks as though he's been injured. In one scene a character refers to a hat Lily wore in a previous scene, but she didn't. I can accept the idea that Marco has a tent set up inside, but why is it snowing inside?
But the real problem is with the puppets. In Stewart's book, Paul hides behind his puppet stage and voices Carrot Top, the walrus named Henry, the grand lady Marguerite and Renardo the fox, assisted only by his partner Jacquot. In Schmidt's production, each puppet becomes a life-sized creation, each controlled by an individual puppeteer. Paul is still Carrot Top, but now Jacquot has become Henry and two unnamed assistants play the others. Not only is the author's intention to have Paul court Lili through his characters completely abandoned, removing the show's romance, but also the puppets used are some of the coldest, creepiest-looking things I've ever seen on a stage. (Do not bring the kids to this one.)
But despite missteps there is plenty of very good work, including an excellent performance by Elena Shaddow as Lili. Mixing exuberance with desperation, Shaddow tones down her impressive soprano during Act I, speaking the words that would contain her top notes, but communicating a dire need to be liked. She sacrifices prettiness in "Yes, My Heart", a celebratory song that normally features many high flourishes, and gives the moment greater excitement with gasps of raw energy. As Lili matures, so does her voice. "I Hate Him", a reaction to Paul's first awkward romantic advances, is breathtakingly delivered in full voice.
Charlie Pollock has a rougher time of it as Paul, a difficult role, to be sure. He sings well, but there is little texture to his troubled character. Of course, he's disadvantaged in this production, losing the scenes that show Paul's softer side. Paul Schoeffler makes for a grand and entertaining Marco, but Jennifer Allen's Rosa is too heavily accented, causing most of her funny lines to fall flat. Nick Wyman is appropriately menacing as carnival owner Schlegal, and Mam Smith displays some nifty aerial acrobatics.
Eric Michael Gillett is a sympathetic and world-weary Jacquot, but his big moment in the show is another odd misstep. The Act II showstopper, "Cirque de Paris", where Jacquot imagines the carnival returning to its glorious past, is performed as a dance number with he and the male chorus all carrying black and yellow umbrellas to protect them from a silver confetti rain. The number is well choreographed by Peter Pucci and Gillett and company dance the hell out of it. Unfortunately the routine has nothing to do with the song.
The visual production is excellent with Christopher Barreca's sets, Michelle R Phillips' costumes (except for when she has Lili looking a bit too much like Anne Frank) and Donald Holder's lights working in tandem to create a gloomy world with traces of its former opulence.
Despite its flaws, this Carnival! is an impressive achievement by a young director and a welcome production of a truly under-appreciated work.
Photos by Jerry Dalia: Top: Elena Shaddow and puppets
Center: Eric Michael GillettBottom: Mam Smith