Produced by The Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
Michael Arnold (center) as Jacquot with the cast of Carnival!. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Carnival! is seldom staged, so I awaited the Kennedy Center’s production with great anticipation, never having seen the show nor heard the full score. When the show debuted on Broadway in 1961, it had a successful run of over seven hundred performances. It received several Tony Award nominations, including best musical and best book, but was passed over for a music (composer) nomination. Hmm. Since the meat of a musical is the music, I wondered if the show would be more sizzle than steak. This made me all the more curious.
Director Robert Longbottom gives Bob Merrill and Michael Stewart’s show every opportunity to sizzle … dazzling set design (Andrew Jackness), evocative lighting (Ken Billington), flashy circus costumes (Paul Tazewell), fabulous production numbers (including a dancing, prancing carousel emerging from a grey packing crate), full-puppet nudity (sorry!, that was Avenue Q), and a first rate cast. Kudos to the Kennedy Center for this polished production. Unfortunately, I was ultimately unmoved by this very wan American musical. While the show boasts the popular song “Love Makes the World Go Round,” if you are humming any tune as you leave the theatre, it may well be the tune Madeline Kahn memorably delivered in the film Blazing Saddles, “I’m Tired.”
In a sea of one-dimensional roles, the most well-rounded and sympathetic characters in the show are puppeteer Jacquot (Michael Arnold) and magician’s assistant Rosalie (Natascia Diaz). Lili (Erini Sevasti) and her two erstwhile suitors, magician Marco (Sebastian La Cause) and puppeteer Paul (Jim Stanek as the tragic romantic lead, a war-wounded former dancer) — are characters sketched with scarce more depth than the charming puppets which steal the too few scenes in which they appear.
Lili seems an unlikely heroine for a 20th century story, diffident (almost shell-shocked) and militantly naïve. Marco’s affectionate (?) name for her is “little mouse,” but she is a mouse not destined to roar. She is given the same simple dress and hairstyle throughout the show (except for her aborted forays as the magician’s audience shill and magician’s assistant) – a little hand-me-down frock passed on from Edith Piaf (in blue, not black) – mouse, sparrow, sparrow, mouse. Sevasti has an uphill climb and, fortunately, brings a sweet charm and beautiful voice to her songs, especially “Mira” and “Yes, My Heart.”
Jim Stanek as hero Paul has a great voice which he wraps around some not very memorable songs. Well, not so much songs as anthems — the kind of music which seems to require that the actor be positioned in a sturdy stance center stage, singing to the second balcony (More Miserables?).
Sebastian La Cause is a handsome Marco, as dashing as he is insincere. He brings to mind the pompous Carl-Magnus from A Little Night Music with a large dollop of the effusive Signor Pirelli from Sweeney Todd. In addition to singing and dancing, he has the added challenge of mastering some classic magic tricks. And he succeeds — with more polish in some than others. For example, he and Rosalie spectacularly wow the audience with a sword cabinet illusion, only to dampen the impact when Marco pulls out the swords and tosses them to his stage hands who catch them by the blades. Better to drop the swords on the floor than dispel the illusion that they are razor sharp.
The sad-sack role of Lili is no match for the supercharged Rosalie. At first, Natascia Diaz seems to be channeling Googie Gomez (Rita Moreno’s hilarious role in The Ritz). Like Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, Rosalie gets a lot of mileage, and a lot of laughs, out of her matrimonial plight. Diaz keeps the audience in stitches with her lover’s lament and the barbs she directs at Marco, the cad she adores. Diaz flawlessly delivers one of the shows most appealing songs, “Always, Always You.” You can almost hear her purse click shut as she picks up the show, drops it in, and walks off the stage at the end of the number.
The show is also well served by Michael Arnold as Jacquot. Arnold is a triple threat as actor, singer, and dancer. He provides sage wisdom and sympathy as mentor to both Paul and Lili. He’s magical as he ushers in the Grand Imperial Cirque De Paris in the ravishing production number.
This is a must show for musical theatre aficionados.
(Running time: Approx. 2 hours, 10 minutes (no intermission)). Plays at the Eisenhower Theater of The Kennedy Center thru March 11th. Tickets: $25 – $90. To order, click here.