Bob Merrill and Michael Stewart’s 1961 hit Carnival may have run a healthy 719 performances on Broadway, but unlike its fellow early-’60s Tony winners The Sound of Music, Gypsy, Bye Bye Birdie, How to Succeed .., Funny/Forum, and Oliver!, regional revivals of Carnival have been few and far between, hence its inclusion in Musical Theatre West’s Reiner Reading Series as a one-night-only concert staged reading, one that reminded those in attendance on Sunday that even forgotten Broadway gems have much to offer.
To begin with, there’s Stewart’s book, based on the 1953 MGM hit Lili.
Both movie and musical tell the tale of a recently orphaned 20ish waif (Ashley Fox Linton in her third consecutive concert staged reading star turn) who travels from her hometown of Mira to seek employment with a family acquaintance at a third-rate traveling carnival called The Grand Imperial Cirque De Paris.
Rather than work with pervy souvenir salesman Monsieur Gobert (Richard Gould), however, Lili ends up part of the carnival puppet show, whose Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, Marguerite, and Reynardo the Fox soon become the enchanting orphan’s closest friends, no matter that they exist only when brought to life by puppeteers Paul Barthalet (Gabriel Kalomas) and Jacquot (Todd Nielsen). Lili and Jacquot bond almost immediately as well, though her relationship with Paul proves considerably pricklier given the puppeteer’s bitterness at having seen his dreams of dance stardom go up in smoke following a war wound which has left him with a visible limp.
Still, whatever friendships Lili has formed with puppets and puppeteer (singular), they pale in comparison with her infatuation with carnival magician Marco The Magnificent (Jeff Skowron in his third Reiner Reading Series appearance), who has our heroine at hello, or at least from the moment he enchants her with a feat of prestidigitization the likes of which she could never have imagined back in Mira.
Needless to say, Lili’s crush on Marco does not sit well with his long-suffering lady-love/assistant Rosalie (Kirklyn Robinson), nor with Paul, who can only voice his feelings for Lili through the mouths of his puppet creations.
The movie Lili provided its star Leslie Caron with the perfect bridge between 1951’s An American In Paris and 1958’s Gigi and served as a star-maker in ’61 for its Tony-winning leading lady Anna Maria Alberghetti, whose lyric soprano proved a perfect fit for melodious Merrill songs like “A Very Nice Man,” “Mira,” “Yes, My Heart,” “I Hate Him,” and the Carnival’s Greatest Hit, “Love Makes The World Go Round.”
Other hummable Merrill/Carnival ditties include a bunch of dramatic ballads for Paul—“I’ve Got To Find A Reason,” “Everybody Likes You,” “Her Face,” and “She’s My Love”—and some big, brassy numbers for Rosalie and/or Marco: “Direct From Vienna,” “Sword, Rose and Cape,” “Humming,” and their infectious love duet, “Always Always You.” (The movie Lili’s big hit “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo,” not a Merrill creation, is conspicuously absent from Carnival.)
Unlike a number of other Tony-nominated early-‘60s shows best left on the shelf (Irma La Douce, No Strings, and Stop the World – I Want to Get Off” among them), Carnival finds itself in the position of deserving a major revival, yet not having sufficient name recognition value to get one.
Not that the show doesn’t present challenges, the foremost of which are a) finding a leading lady to fill Caron’s and Alberghetti’s shoes and b) recreating the original’s puppetry and magic.
Director David Lamoureux solves problem number one with the incandescent Linton, who follows leading roles in Reiner Reading Series’ Little Me and Call Me Madam and Musical Theatre Guild’s Death Takes A Holiday, with her most magical performance of all as Lili, every bit as enchanting as her film and Broadway predecessors and with a soprano as clear as crystal.
Solving the first half of problem number two are Kalomas and Nielsen, who prove themselves adept at puppeteering. As for the show’s sleight-of-hand tricks, an inspired Lamoureux has magician/ensemble member Robert Ramirez perform them as Skowron’s identically dressed altar ego perched just above and behind him—and allows audience imaginations to do the rest.
Concert Staged Readings are by definition fairly bare-boned and virtually scenery free. Carnival’s features black boxes against a black backdrop and nothing else, just enough cubes for cast members to sit on in a circus ring-inspired circle when those boxes are not being configured for use as a puppet stage and (amusingly and ingeniously) as the upright oblong box in which Rosalie gets fake-stabbed by sword after sword in one of Marco’s most memorable feats of magic.
Most magical of all, however, are the oh-so impressive performances of a cast given a mere twenty-five hours of rehearsal per Actors Equity rules.
Kalomas’s deeply felt, gorgeously sung Paul begs the question, why haven’t we seen this talented fellow before and how soon can we see him again? Skowron is terrific as always as the seductive if slimy Marco, with Robinson filling Rosalie’s shoes (and those of Kaye Ballard and Joanne Worley, who played the role on Broadway and on tour) quite splendidly, and less than four years after her high school graduation.
Nielsen is charming as always as Jacquot, Tom Shelton delights as Cirque De Paris ringmaster B.F. Schlegel, and Gould is a hoot of a coot as the sleazy Goubert, with ensemble members Jackie Cox, Daniel Dawson, Donna Louden, Madison Mitchell, Ramirez, and Adam Trent providing dandy support both vocally and in assorted carnival cameos.
Musical director Corey Hirsch does bang-up work in his latest Musical Theatre West assignment, conducting and playing keyboards for a pitch-perfect onstage orchestra—and when was the last time you saw a concert staged reading whose orchestra featured an accordionist, a guitarist, and a tuba player?
Musical Theatre West’s Reiner Reading Series is produced by Lamoureux and Michael Betts. Daniel Thomas is stage manager.
Thanks go out as always to the Reiner Reading Series’ generous sponsors Ken & Dottie Reiner, with additional funding from The Ackerman Family/Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation and Kathryn Baker Campbell.
Carnival marks the halfway point in the Reiner Reading Series’ 2013-14 season, to be followed by 1993’s considerably more recent The Goodbye Girl and the Sherman Brothers’ Busker Alley, which toured the U.S. in 1995 but never opened on Broadway, both of them guaranteed treats for musical theater lovers.
Bob Merrill and Michael Stewart’s Carnival may not have gone on to the much-revived smash status of the onomatopoeic Cabaret, Camalot, Carousel, and Cats, but it makes for one delightfully performed Reiner Reading Series hit, the kind that leaves you eager for more.
University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach.
March 9, 2014