By Joel Markowitz
Strings, Organs, Ravens, Benefits and Should’ves
AND THEY CALL IT PUPPET LOVE …
You have to hand it to these theatres. It’s puppets…puppets… puppets everywhere!
First they appeared this year in Studio Theatre’s elegant production of The Long Christmas Ride Home, and next year they will appear from November 27-December 9th at The National Theatre as Avenue Q, the Tony Award Winner for Best Musical in 2004, beating out the still sold out Wicked. And now, here they are again in The Kennedy Center’s lavish, eye-popping production of Carnival!, which has a short run in the Eisenhower Theatre. (Thank God they didn’t stick it in the Opera House pit like they did The Light In The Piazza).
Carnival! is a 1961 Tony-award winning Broadway Musical with book by Michael Stewart and music and lyrics by Bob Merrill. It starred Kaye Ballard, Jerry Orbach, Anna Marie Alberghetti, Henry Lascoe and Mel Torme.
Although I’m not a big fan of the show and can’t remember one note of the score except for the ‘Love makes…’ song, I have to admit that Robert Longbottom whose show Side Show is still one of my all-time favorites, has given the production at The Kennedy Center a stunning visual look, and has squeezed every possible emotion out of his cast. Peter Marks raved today in the Washington Post. “If the Kennedy Center’s goal here was to dress a difficult, neglected work in a coat of contemporary artistry, the aim has been achieved.” No doubt about it: Longbottom makes this poignant world go ’round.” So now the show is guaranteed to fill up its seats for the rest of the run. With a review like that, maybe they will extend it.
To me, it’s the performances of three Broadway vets that pull the strings in this production and outshine the puppets. I saw Jim Stanek, who plays Paul, in the revival of A Funny Thing Happens On The Way To The Forum (with Nathan Lane), where he played the high-pitched Hero. His voice is much lower here as he plays Paul with incredible passion and sings beautifully.
I enjoyed Natascia Diaz last year in the wonderful revival of Jacques Brel…at the Zipper Theatre in NYC (Jim Stanek was also in the Jacques Brel… cast). When she sang I Love, my heart melted. Local audiences may remember her as Elektra in Arena Stage’s production of Agamemnon and His Daughters in 2001, and as Petra in A Little Night Music at the Sondheim Festival in 2002, where she sang the hell out of ‘The Miller’s Son’.Welcome back to DC, Natascia!
And then there is Michael Arnold, playing Jacquot. He lights up the stage with his singing and dancing, just like he did when I saw him in NYC in Cabaret, 42nd Street, Little Me, Chicago, and Cats and like Jim Stanek, he was also in Forum, where served as Dance Captain.. And, boy does he show us his hoofing skills in ‘The Grand Imperial Cirque De Paris’, spectacularly choreographed by Robert Longbottom.
And those puppets – how can you not fall in love with Paul Christie’s lovable creations? Carrot Top, the sweet orphan who is Paul’s alter ego, Marguerite – everyone’s Diva nightmare, Horrible Henry – the long-toothed walrus with a big heart who always says the wrong thing, and Renaldo, the smooth talking fox (like Marco the Magician). They are adorable!
By the way, Elena Shaddow who graced the Kennedy Center Opera House last month as Clara in The Light In The Piazza in the Opera House, (her performance is nominated for a Helen Hayes Award) played Lili in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of Carnival! in March and April 2006.