Packet Online -  'Carnival!'

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        By: Stuart Duncan , TimeOFF 06/12/2002

            The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival kicks off its 40th season with a show centering on its summer theme, "The Grand Magic."

            It has been a quarter-century since Paul Gallico died, so undoubtedly there is a full generation of folks who have no idea that he was a writer of great breadth and extraordinary charm. His children's books include Thomasina and The Snow Goose and are still read by clever parents to their kids. His two movies, Pride of the Yankees and The Poseidon Adventure, an astonishing 30 years later, are classics.

            Sometime in the 1950s, Gallico wrote a short story, Love of Seven Dolls, about a parentless waif in France at the end of the 19th century. She wanders into a traveling carnival, owned by a friend of her late father. She falls in love with the magician, Marco the Magnificent, but is equally intrigued by the puppet show, whose marionette   walrus and fox talk to the lonely girl and become her friends. The temperamental puppeteer, once a fine dancer but now crippled by an accident, has become bitter and can speak of his affection for the girl only through his puppets.

             MGM took the story, handed it to writer Helen Deutsch, and the result was a 1953 movie, Lili, which starred Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer. Rather than open it in one of New York's larger theaters, the studio presented the film in the intimate Translux Theatre on Madison Avenue, where it ran on and on, delighting audiences of all ages with its wistful charm. The title song ("Hi Lili, Hi Low") became a hit, and the movie took on a new life.

             Theater mogul David Merrick grabbed it, and Michael Stewart adapted it cleverly for the stage, always faithful to the tale but emphasizing the carnival aspects of the story. Anna Maria Alberghetti played the waif, and Jerry Orbach, fresh from The Fantasticks, played the puppeteer. Director Gower Champion, who also choreographed, counterbalanced moments of tenderness with vivid moments of an exotic carnival atmosphere amid tawdry gaiety. Champion never allowed sentiment to lapse into sentimentality.

             The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival has chosen Carnival! to open its 40th summer season and its theme, "The Grand Magic." Director Bonnie Monte shows us some of the show's darker hiding places and her cast is a bit on the old side, but nevertheless, the evening is a welcome one. Two Festival veterans, Paul Mullins as Marco the Magnificent and Robert Cuccioli as Paul, the puppeteer, find interesting insights into the somewhat one-dimensional characters. Mr. Mullins, a fine character actor, plays down the machismo aspects of the role in favor of casual diffidence and it comes out even more scruffy than usual. Mr. Cuccioli brings his stunning voice    with such songs as "Her Face," and by discarding sympathy as a tool, he finds moments not seen in the role before.

             Kate Dawson, as Lili, has a gorgeous voice, handles Bob Merrill's lyrics and score with ease but never quite finds the lost little girl in the character. Tina Stafford almost steals the show as The Incomparable Rosalie.

             Mr. Cuccioli does the voices of all four puppet characters and does them so well that I was fooled into thinking the four actors who pop up with the puppets at the curtain call had done them. No, indeed, Mr. Cuccioli does them; the man has a second career if he wants.

           Carnival! plays at The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., Madison, through June 30. Performances: Tues-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 2, 8 p.m.; Sun. 2, 7 p.m. Tickets cost $38-$51. For information, call (973) 408-5600. On the Web: www.njshakespeare.org

            ŠPacket Online 2002

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