(New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, Madison, N.J.; 308 seats; $60)
A New Jersey Shakespeare Festival production of a musical in two acts, directed by Bonnie J. Monte. Music and lyrics by Bob Merrill, book by Michael Stewart, based on material by Helen Deutsch.
Paul Berthalet - Robert Cuccioli
Lili - Kate Dawson
Marco the Magnificent - Paul Mullins
Dr. Glass - Nick Corley
Jacquot - Michael Medeiros
Princess Olga - Kate Middleton
Grobert - Michael Ricciardone
B.F. Schlegel - Bernie Sheredy
Rosalie - Tina Stafford
By ROBERT L. DANIELS
Simplicity and an abundance of charm dominate a rare musical turn by the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, opening a 40th anniversary season with the 1961 musical "Carnival." With some clever innovation and atmospheric continental flavor, artistic director Bonnie J. Monte has put a sweet new spin on the flavorful old tuner.
Robert Cuccioli is well cast as the bitter, war-crippled puppeteer. Snarling and sullen, he brings a dark, brooding presence to the tacky world of a traveling carnival. As Lili, the little watchmaker's daughter, Kate Dawson may fall short of the required waifishness and naivete, but she is a most fetching orphan, and ultimately an appealing and spirited heroine. What's more, Dawson sings beautifully, taking the lyrical strains of "Love Makes the World Go Round," "Yes, My Heart" and the haunting "Mira" to glorious heights.
There is one glaring wrong note. Paul Mullins -- an often-clever comic actor -- plays Marco the Magnificent, the rakish and shallow magician who makes a futile attempt to seduce little Lili. This time out, the seductive roue is acted much like a randy flying Karamazov brother. It's an amusing conceit, but as a lecherous, moustache-twirling fool, the role falls far short of the required fairy-tale romanticism. The magician's sword-box number, "Always Always You," is nevertheless delightfully performed by Mullins and Tina Stafford as the appropriately brash and "incomparable" Rosalie. As Marco's shrewish and possessive assistant, Stafford adds comic spunk.
An inspired innovation by Monte finds the four principal puppets portrayed by (sadly unidentified) actors. The sympathetic carrot-topped clown, the cynical fox, the haughty Henrietta and the sentimental walrus -- don't call him a seal! -- are immensely likable and diverting companions. The idea is an ingratiating one and provides a warm human touch. Like the gullible little Lili, the audience is drawn closer to the charm and simple wisdom of the chummy puppets.
There is keen support from Michael Ricciardone as the frustrated circus owner and Michael Medeiros as the puppet partner with fanciful dreams, who turns the "Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris" into a big-top center-ring highlight.
Bob Merrill's score is richly varied and musically colorful, as demonstrated by the exquisite City Center "Encores" staged reading in February. The songs are well served by the cast, and Cuccioli's robust baritone in particular turns "Her Face," "She's My Love," and "Everybody Likes You" into boldly soaring melodic statements.
In a rare musical sidestep for the festival, director Monte has flavored the piece with the colorful presence of stilt-walkers, strong men, souvenir peddlers and a diminutive acrobatic dwarf who scurries in and out and under the legs of carny roustabouts. Monte has set the piece at the tail end of the 19th century, somewhere in provincial France.
Set designer Janie Howland has fashioned a rundown traveling circus with rickety wagons
framed by the dusty canvas flaps of the big tent. The bottom sweep of a Ferris wheel is
accented by a heaven of colored lights.
With: Clark Carmichael, Ethan Crough, Benjamin Eakeley, Greg Kata, Robyn Lee, Jay Leibowitz, Amanda McCroskery, Aaron Shipp, Laura Standley, Katrina Toshiko, James Zeus.
Set, Janie Howland; costumes, Molly Reynolds; lighting, Steven Rosen; musical direction, Jan Rosenberg; choreography, Keely Garfield; stage manager, Mindy Richardson. Opened and reviewed June 1, 2002. Closes June 30. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.