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A CurtainUp Review
Early on, we are prepared for Schmidts unsparingly grim vision as Grobert (Richard Pruitt), the carnivals souvenir peddler attacks the presumably naÌve Lili (Elena Shaddow) and puts his hand up her dress only minutes after she arrives looking for a job. There is no denying the often crude and callous reality of carnival life. But this kind of unsettling sexual assault also suggests that Schmidt wants to take this musical play beyond what might be more subtly implied.
Lili is saved in the nick of time by the intervention of Marco the Magnificent (Paul Schoeffler), the troupes rakish resident magician, but there is no saving the musical that continues on a downward spiral of grim getting grimmer. Yes, Carnival is musically and dramatically demanding, but it also needs to balance its provocative psychological propellants with a bit of whimsy and wistfulness, two aspects in woefully short supply.
Although grounded in sentimentality and pathos, this odd but potentially endearing musical from the golden age requires a firm hand, one that can stay true to its serious intentions and still infuse it with bursts of charm. Notwithstanding Schmidts earnestness in this regard, there is a serious lack of delicacy even in the lighter moments, specifically Lilis fantasy Beautiful Candy that is climaxed needlessly and clumsily by a shower of confetti.
Schmidt puts most of her faith in the four-sided plot with its demand for assigning equal dramatic weight to the four romantically motivated principals. The intimacy of the two parallel stories is entwined in typical musical theater fashion. One involves the innocent Lili and her infatuation with Marco, an egocentric womanizer and his on again off again relationship with The Incomparable Rosalie (Jennifer Allen). an egocentric womanizer and his on again off again relationship with The Incomparable Rosalie (Jennifer Allen). The other relates to her dependence upon Paul Berthalet (Charlie Pollock), an embittered puppeteer and a former dancer permanently handicapped by war injuries.
Thrown into the mix of misery-perpetuating misfits are the puppets, whose sass, wit and wisdom presumably bespeak the hearts of the humans. As we wait Paul to inevitably open up his heart to Lili and for Rosalie to make up her mind whether to marry a wealthy veterinarian from Munich or face the future with Marco, we listen to a lovely, almost operatically scaled score with lots of lovely tunes -- the most famous being" Love Makes the World Go Round."
As in original director Gower Champions legendary staging, Schmidts staging is also conceptually spare -- but also unnecessarily plodding. The measured pacing wouldnt seem amiss for Long Days Journey into Night. Set designer Christopher Barreca and costumer Michelle R. Phillips define the tawdry aspects of the carnival with a minimum of color. Lily is supposed to be plain, so lets just say that her drab frock further validates the pall that, with the help of Donald Holders lighting, hovers over the entire show.
It is fortunate that Shaddow turns Lilis insecurities into lyrical flights with a voice as bright and clear as a bell. This is the role that was originally played on Broadway by 25 year-old prodigy Anna-Maria Albergthetti who won the 1962 Tony for her performance. If Shaddow is barely persuasive in her first character number, "Mira," in which she tells us of the small comforting town from which she hails, she becomes more so with her adoration of the puppet, with whom her relationship is supposed to be more affecting than with the humans. However, there is a grievous misconception in the use of larger-than-life puppets, virtually mannequins rather than hand puppets. Lilis affection for the puppets is based on her belief in them, particularly the feelings that are expressed to her by Paul through her favorite Carrot Top. Although artfully crafted and nicely handled, these puppets have a nightmarish quality and an imposing presence that does not support Lilis delightful song "Everybody Likes You," as sung to the unicycle-riding Carrot Top. The similarly looming puppets -- including a fox (Drew Cortese), a walrus (Eric Michael Gillett), and haughty diva (Benjie Randall), who recalls singing "high M above L," -- also come across as more sexually insinuating than my memory recalls. I could be wrong.
While Shaddows performance grows richer as the show progresses, this is not the case for the look of B. F. Schlegels (Nick Wyman) carnival which remains distinctly poverty row. A fire-eater Jason Babinsky, an aerialist Mam Smith and fellow acrobats Michael H. Fielder and Hector Flores enliven the melodramatic doings with their acrobatic divertissements.
Pollock has a sturdy, resonant voice and does a good job of incorporating Pauls perpetual distress and sorrow into his principal aria "Her Face," and later in counter point to Lilis "I Hate Him." Marco is supposed to be suave and sexy and since Schoeffler pulls this off with élan, it at least, makes Lilis infatuation with him somewhat believable. He earns the laughs he gets with the tempestuous Ms Allen in their on-stage magic act duet "Always, Always You."
Jacquot, Pauls assistant is a minor character, but in the charge of Eric Michael Gillett he earns our affection, particularly in the musicals best number, the playful umbrella-twirling "Grand Imperial Cirque De Paris," in which he is joined by the male ensemble. Perhaps feeling affection for the shows most minor principal tells us something. The plight of this mentally challenged French girl, who runs away from home and is awakened to love and life in a small economically challenged circus, is meant to be hopeful and emotionally unsettling, not boring and tedious.
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