Sunday, March 04, 2007

All This Useless Beauty: Carnival at Kennedy Center

When the musical Carnival opened on Broadway in 1961, it was an unapologetic throwback to old-fashioned operetta, with plenty of sentimental romance, an exotic European setting, and a glorious, glittering score by Bob Merrill that evoked the best of Rudolf Friml and Franz Lehar. The show marked the Broadway debut of the late Jerry Orbach (of Law and Order fame), earned Tony Awards for set design and for its star, Anna Maria Alberghetti, and proved long before Avenue Q that a puppet show can sell tickets on the Great White Way.

Yet despite a respectable 719-performance run, Carnival is seldom revived today, and in the production currently playing at the Kennedy Center, D.C.-area audiences can finally see why. The show requires a full orchestra, elaborate sets and costumes, an opera-caliber lyric soprano in the lead, an older baritone who can sing and dance, several actors who can perform complicated magic tricks, a puppet theater with professional-quality puppets, and last (but certainly least), a dancing bear.

Unfortunately, beneath this delightful frou-frou is a pedestrian boy-gets-girl plot. Carnival is based on the 1953 Leslie Caron film Lili, in which the title character -- the most innocent of innocent orphan girls -- arrives at a down-on-its-heels traveling circus and finds herself forced to choose romantically between a handsome, lecherous magician and a crippled but kind-hearted puppeteer. Meanwhile, the magician’s long-suffering assistant stews on the sidelines and threatens to leave the act. Although the show prolongs matters somewhat by having the puppeteer question the innocent girl’s morals, it’s a mere formality. There’s never the slightest doubt as to whether the magician’s assistant will stand by her man, or whether the girl will choose the true lover over the callow wooer.

Carnival is a small, quiet chamber musical that wants desperately to be a big Broadway spectacle, and its strangely schizophrenic tendencies have always been most apparent in the sub-par book. Michael Stewart, better known for his work on Bye Bye Birdie and Hello, Dolly!, stuffed this delicate bonbon with jarring, unfunny one-liners and raucous showbiz shtick, some of it apparently for the tired-businessman crowd. For this revival, the Kennedy Center has enlisted Francine Pascal, Stewart’s sister and creator of the Sweet Valley High novels, to revise and pare down the original book, which she appears to have done with a vengeance: Carnival, now an intermissionless two hours, hurries from song to song without so much as a pause for breath -- or alas, for basic character development. Yet the initial problems remain: With wisecracks like “You haven’t wished anybody good luck since you put your mother on the Titanic,” the book still feels silly, crass and generally out of keeping with the rest of the show.

As Lili, Kennedy Center newcomer Ereni Sevasti is sweet enough to induce sugar shock, and perhaps a bit too innocuous for her doormat of a character to make an impression. The role of Lili can be a tough sell for today’s post-feminist audiences, who like their women assertive, but Sevasti is as physically convincing in the part as anyone can be. Would that her singing were as good, but it‘s not even close. In what can only be explained as a perverse attempt to sound childlike, Sevasti withholds breath support from her upper register, so that her high notes squeak with ersatz naivete. She also has some trouble with pitch: Sometimes she’s a bit flat (as in the fluttery Offenbach number “Yes, My Heart”), though she can also be as much as half a tone sharp. I suspect she is a much better singer than she lets on here, but it isn’t easy to tell.

Luckily, the other vertices of Carnival’s romantic triangle are rock-solid. Although Jim Stanek is too young and handsome to play Paul the puppeteer, he easily handles the role's physical demands, including some fairly accomplished puppetry. More importantly, his earnest, intelligent delivery of songs like “Everybody Likes You” and “Her Face” make these seldom-heard gems sparkle like new. As Marco the magician, Sebastian La Cause is smarmy, comic perfection. Yet underneath his syrupy-sinister Eastern-European accent and deliciously hammy stage presence lurks a real talent for prestidigitation, and it’s given quite a workout by the evening‘s end. In Arena Stage’s recent production of She Loves Me, La Cause used broad brushstrokes to play a similarly unctuous womanizer, but for Carnival he goes even broader -- and is much, much funnier.

Supporting roles are superb, as one would expect from the Kennedy Center. Natascia Diaz gets the lion’s share of lousy lines and silly stage business as the magician‘s jealous assistant Rosalie, but manages to hold her dignity. That said, Diaz's rendition of “Humming,” a bona fide aria in which she lets her character's fury run unchecked, is the vocal highlight of this particular production.

Michael Arnold’s portrayal of old Jacquot, a carnival hand who acts as confidant to Paul and Lili, is suitably winning: Although he doesn’t have much to do during most of the evening, he makes up for it toward the end, introducing a show-stopping can-can (“Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris”) that shows us what this particular carnival looked like before it fell on hard times. And in a particularly inspired touch, the Kennedy Center has cast Johnathan Lee Iverson, the youngest person and the first African-American ever to serve as ringmaster of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, to act as the carnival’s own master of ceremonies.

Director-choreographer Robert Longbottom brings to Carnival the same deft touch, fluid staging and visual acumen he displayed two years ago in the Kennedy Center production of Mister Roberts. Yet Carnival doesn't quite work. The material here is more problematic, and in the grandiose Eisenhower Theater, the individual characters can never truly engage the audience on the intimate terms the show requires. Worse yet, most of the supporting actors appear in clown makeup throughout the evening -- a choice that feels like a holdover from the 1960s avant-garde, and not a welcome one at that.

Ultimately, where Mister Roberts was inventive and enthralling, this show feels slick and remote, as if someone had placed it ever so carefully under a glass bubble where no one could touch or hurt it. Despite the cotton-candy sets, beautiful music and abundant stage trickery, there’s not much magic in this Carnival.

Carnival. Music and lyrics by Bob Merrill. Book by Michael Stewart, revised by Francine Pascal. Directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom. Tickets $25 - $90. At the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through March 11. For more information, call (202)467-4600 or visit

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