Director drawn to magic of 'Carnival!'
Friday, May 31, 2002

Star-Ledger Staff

Bonnie J. Monte begins her 12th season as artistic director of the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival in Madison with an atypical offering. Opening Saturday is "Carnival!" the Broadway musical version of the film "Lili," about a young girl who joins a carnival, meets a puppeteer, and is charmed by the puppets, but not the man who controls them. While Monte has directed the lion's share of Shakespeare Festival productions, this will be the first musical she has directed professionally.

What made you say, "I want to direct a musical"?
Well, I think it's important to keep challenging yourself ... I've been a casting director for some (musicals), and I've certainly produced others here, but I'd never staged one.

Because way down deep, you don't much like musicals?
Truthfully, when I was a kid, I hated being in them. I was a good dancer, but I couldn't sing at all, so it wasn't a genre for me. One of the few I did enjoy was "Can- Can" when I was at school at Bethany College in West
Virginia, because I got to do the famous "Adam and Eve Ballet." So did you consider "Can- Can" instead of "Carnival!"?  For a while there, I didn't know which one I'd do -- but I knew I wanted something magical. I mentioned this to my various casts, and one actor, Edmond Genest, started waxing nostalgic about "Carnival!" Just the way he described the opening scene --where a whole circus arrives and opens up in front of you -- made me feel it might be the right one for me.

But you had never read it, heard it or seen it?
No, but after I got the CD, I loved it. Same thing when I read the script, as well as the (Paul Gallico) short story that inspired it.

How did Robert Cuccioli ("Jekyll & Hyde") get involved?
Bob's been here with "Enter the Guardsman" and "Antony and Cleopatra," so the minute I read the script, I saw him as Paul, the brooding puppeteer. So when I called him and said, "I'm thinking of doing 'Carnival,'" he
didn't even wait for me to finish, but said, "Oh, my God, I've always wanted to play Paul." I told him if he'd commit to it, I'd definitely do it.

What have you brought to the show?
A darker vision. While there's still plenty of fun in it, I've shied away from giving it a distinctly American feel. For example, when it was first done (in 1961), Kaye Ballard had an important role in it. She seems too American to me, so I'm stressing that this is a European carnival that comes from Vienna and has just landed in France. I'm also setting it a little farther back than the time the authors set it, so it's now at the turn of the century. That gives Lili, the girl who falls in love with Paul, more innocence.

Did you watch the 1953 movie "Lili" with Leslie Caron?
I'd seen it as a kid, but I decided I'd better rent it. I liked the elements in the film that aren't in the musical. Some of it is surreal and dreamlike, and I've added those qualities into the show.

What's been the hardest part of directing a musical?
Well, I've always had to collaborate with actors and designers, but now there's a musical director to consider, too. She (Jan Rosenberg) has been terrific, but there are times she needs to work with the actors -- which means I can't.

So "Carnival!" has been the challenge you expected?
I'll say. People have always asked me, "How can you do Shakespeare with only three or four weeks' rehearsal?" The real question is how can anyone do the mammoth job of a musical in that short a time? What I'd give for an
extra week.

''Carnival!" plays through June 30 at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival,
F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., Madison, Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., with matinees on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 2 p.m. June 6
performance is at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $38-$51. Call (973) 408-5600 or go to
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