- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2007

It doesn’t bode well when you are making small talk in the Kennedy Center cafeteria and mention that you are seeing “Carnival!” and the response is “I didn’t know the cruise ship was docked on the Potomac.”

“Carnival!” is perhaps the best musical you’ve never seen. Rarely revived and often confused with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” the 1961 charmer about a naive village girl who joins a French traveling circus features a sophisticated score and heartfelt lyrics by Bob Merrill. Based on the 1953 MGM movie “Lili,” the original production of “Carnival!” was directed by Gower Champion and the cast included a then-unknown Anna Maria Alberghetti, Kaye Ballard, and Jerry Orbach as Paul, the sour puppeteer (that must have really delighted the kiddies) who expresses his finer feelings through his marionettes.

The Kennedy Center’s vibrant and splendidly circusy production, directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom, makes you wonder why other shows are revived to death and “Carnival!” is relegated to cult status and the one song, “Love Makes the World Go Round.” Maybe it’s because the show might seem sentimental, as it is told from the point of view of Lili (Ereni Sevasti, an arresting newcomer), a sheltered waif who learns of the world’s magic and malice after she becomes part of the troupe and falls for Marco (Sebastian La Cause), a magician known for his hocus-pocus with the ladies.

Lili’s acquiring of experience is set in the intoxicating and exotic world of the circus, which set designer Andrew Jackness conjures as a lollipop-hued fantasy of big-top tents, reams of colored lights and canvas banners hawking the sideshow attractions, all set against a brooding and gray French sky. The idea that things may be ominous and lousy outside but inside the big top everything is dazzling and glittery is carried through to Paul Tazewell’s capricious costumes, rendered in screaming pinks and glaring whites and lavishly embellished with stripes, sequins and feathers.

The escapism versus reality theme suffuses the show, and is best seen in the character of Jacquot (Michael Arnold), Paul’s loyal friend and an idealistic circus veteran. In many ways, Jacquot is the romantic and questing soul of the musical, a point heightened by Mr. Arnold’s breakout performance in the role.

Affecting a guttural accent and tough-guy stances befitting a carny, Mr. Arnold’s Jacquot’s also possesses a brimming heart and enough largesse to light up the world. He even gets his moment in the spotlight in the majestic “Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris,” where he and a bevy of performers strut their stuff in a number that embraces all that is gaudy and hopeful about the circus.

The show’s other standout performance is Natascia Diaz as Marco’s sultry but trod-upon assistant Rosalie. Her pert, expertly nuanced numbers “Humming” and “Magic Magic” reveal an actress of great timing and comic skill who makes Rosalie jaded and nobody’s fool, but also the kind of woman able to still be tripped up by her own feelings and the spell Marco still holds over her. Mr. La Cause’s Marco is a hilarious parody of hyper-masculinity and while his physique and dimpled charm are genetically designed to set hearts aflutter, the beefcake quickly descends into pure ham. If playing cads is to be his forte (which he did suavely in December’s “She Loves Me” at Arena), he needs to tone down the smarm.

Jim Stanek’s Paul is also problematic, as he is such a disagreeable sort throughout the show we never gain insights into his vulnerabilities and struggles. It doesn’t help that the character of Paul is saddled with a string of morose ballads of the “my life reeks and I limp” ilk. Then, there’s the matter of the puppets — at first, designer Ed Christie’s creations have that cloying, artificial quality of old-fashioned marionettes, but they slowly grow on you and the costume changes and eccentric touches (one puppet plays a tiny mandolin and holds a barking puppet puppy) go a long way into warming up the papier-mache creations.

Besides, how could you not love a show that features acrobats, aerialists, rough but fetching roustabouts and a dancing bear (Alan Bennett) on roller skates who upgrades to a snowy white polar bear in one of the musical’s many dream sequences? The utter lack of guile and pretense is precisely why “Carnival!” is so affecting — there is something deeply captivating about Lili shedding illusions but still retaining what makes her special.


WHAT: “Carnival!” music and lyrics by Bob Merrill, book by Michael Stewart

WHERE: Eisenhower Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays; 1:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays. Through March 11.

TICKETS: $25 to $90

INFORMATION: 800/444-1324 or 202/467-4600


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