Cuccioli joins the 'Carnival'

Published in the Home News Tribune 5/24/02

On the Go Writer

The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival opens its 40th season this week with a decidedly unorthodox choice: It opens at Drew University's F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre not with an Elizabethan tragedy, but with that all-American musical, "Carnival!"

New Jersey Shakespeare Festival
Featuring Robert Cuccioli
Tuesday-June 30
F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre
Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., Madison
(973) 408-5600

Sure, Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte will get to The Bard later in the season (see below for a full schedule), but for now she's taking the plunge and directing her first musical.

Rest assured -- Monte's not jumping in without a musical net: She's got veteran Broadway musical director Jan Rosenberg by her side ("Cats," "Jekyll & Hyde").

Better yet, she's got Robert Cuccioli.

By now, Cuccioli, best known for his Tony-nominated Broadway turn in "Jekyll & Hyde" in the late '90s, is a festival alum: He appeared in 1999's musical "Enter the Guardsman" and 2000's "Antony & Cleopatra."

"The environment is so great, and I adore (Monte) as a person and a director," Cuccioli said in a telephone interview earlier this week. "She's very convincing when she has something on her mind."

Cuccioli is set to play Paul Berthalet, the acerbic crippled puppeteer who charms Kate Dawson's naive Lili in the exotic world of the French carnival.

"I wanted to cultivate a relationship here because (in 2000) I was doing a lot of musicals," Cuccioli said, "and I wanted to start doing straight plays, especially Shakespeare. Bonnie gave me my first opportunity to do that with 'Antony & Cleopatra.' She had the insight to see that a musical actor can actually do Shakespeare."

Sure, "Carnival!" is a full-out musical: The show, adapted from the 1953 Leslie Caron film "Lili," hit Broadway in 1961 with its story of a homeless waif meeting up with a jaded puppeteer and his band of faded carnival misfits. It yielded the song "Love Makes the World Go Round."

Still, Cuccioli insists Monte's version is not all cotton candy and caramel-covered popcorn.

"Traditionally, it's very light and airy," said Cuccioli, who last appeared in the show back in high school. "Carnival is . . . based upon a dark book (Paul Gallico's "Love of Seven Dolls"), so to go back and re-look at it and say, 'OK, this is not the fluffy thing that people think it is, and let's see what we can do with this to darken it a little bit and make that work' was exciting to me because it's a reconceptualizing of something that's been done a certain way."

Call this the self-actualized "Carnival!" This version lends more emotional weight to Lili by acknowledging her dark past, Cuccioli said. The audience learns that Lili's sweetness and innocence can be used as masks to obscure her pain.

Cuccioli's Paul dons his own masks, hiding behind his puppets rather than exposing his true feelings, Cuccioli said.

Cuccioli said he relates to that aspect of the character.

"Most actors, they find it terrifying to stand up on the stage and just be themselves," he said. Mounting his own cabaret show two years ago "was a very enlightening experience for me. I think it is easier to hide behind the character."

Cuccioli seems game to hide behind Paul in "Carnival!" for a few weeks.

"To come back and play the role I wanted to play, and I loved Bonnie's concept of it," he said, "there was no question that I wanted to do it."

The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival continues with William Shakespeare's "Pericles" July 9-28; Pierre Corneille's "The Illusion" Aug. 6-25; Luigi Pirandello's "Enrico IV" Sept. 3-29; Shakespeare's "The Tempest" Oct. 29-Nov. 24; and "A Midwinter Night's Dream" Dec. 3-29, an adaptation of, you guessed it, Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

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