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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Carnival! at Paper Mill:
Deeper, Darker, More Adult

Elena Shaddow (Lili), surrounded
by her puppets

We see an uncurtained, bare stage as we take our seats. The vast Paper Mill stage is open to the theatre's exposed black back wall and beyond the proscenium through the wings on each side. Its vast, open blackness conveys a sense of monumental bleakness which immediately informs us that we are not at the family style, light and sentimental Carnival! of memory. The loading dock style door of the rear wall rolls upward and the cast and crew of a traveling tent circus slowly and tiredly load in their physical properties. We will shortly recognize that we are in the head of a frightened adolescent girl who, having just been orphaned, has journeyed a long distance via two buses and a train to find this traveling circus. She seeks the friend of her father whom her father had told her would care for her. However, this sought after protector has moved on.

Yes, we will see the familiar story of the shy and orphaned Lili and her first experiences with the members of the inappropriately named Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris. The gross concessionaire Grobert, who will attempt to have his way with her; the bitter puppeteer Paul, who has lost his career as a dancer as a result of a crippling war injury; his fatherly assistant, the sensitive Jacquot; the charismatic, womanizing magician Marco; his jealous paramour and stage assistant, Rosalie; and the overbearing circus owner, B. F. Schlegel among them. And most prominently, Paul's puppets through which Paul conveys to Lili the affection of which he is incapable of otherwise expressing.

The vast, black space and the cold, harsh, bright, colorless lighting portray the overwhelming anxieties and fears within the mind of the intrepid Lili. Through the eyes of Lili we see four life size puppets (augmenting the standard puppet stage sized puppets which were all that were employed in prior productions) illustrating the perception within Lili's mind that they have a life force of their own. Thus, although her story is unchanged, we are now made to viscerally feel the magnitude of Lili's despair. This is fully appropriate for a story whose two main characters are suicidal, and which portrays a middle-aged would-be rapist of a young innocent. It's not that these elements were not always present, but that they have been touched upon so lightly that by the final curtain the viewer would likely only remember the warm sentiment and cute puppets.

Producer Michael Gennaro had chosen a safer, more conventional roster for Paper Mill this season after last year's more adventurous one. And yet, Gennaro has taken some big risks with Carnival!, and they have paid large dividends. He has handed the reins for this production to acclaimed New York fringe theatre director Erica Schmidt, and allowed her to radically reinterpret a popular, much loved musical originally directed and choreographed by Gower Champion. I know of no instance where Schmidt has previously directed so large a production, or in so large a theatre. Without breaking the budget, Schmidt has delivered an epic style production that illuminates the dread that makes the best of traditional fairy tales so real and resonant. In molding Carnival into a petite Grand Guignol for adults, Schmidt has likely made it more relevant to today's sophisticated adolescents.

Elena Shaddow is an ideal Lili. Pretty, with sad, doe eyes, Shaddow employs an eager smile and awkward, shy, child-like movement which makes her Lili, simply stated, adorable. Shaddow finds the precise tone to delightfully convey the humor in her adoration of Marco's magic skills while retaining its sincerity. Furthermore, Shaddow has a lovely, classically trained voice which she employs to accurately capture the light operetta style in which composer-lyricist Bob Merrill composed Lili's songs for Broadway's original Lili, Anna Maria Alberghetti. From the moment that Shaddow sang the tender "Mira," describing her feelings about the town from which she has come, there can be no doubt that Lili is in safe hands. Those who only know the score from the City Center Encores version will find her vocal performance a revelation.

Although he sings more than well enough, Charlie Pollock here simply lacks the acting chops to engage us as the bitter Paul. His moodiness and anger seem external and delivered as performance rather than being real and organic. While an inadequate Paul is no small matter, there is fortunately much of excellence in this production to keep Carnival! well afloat.

As Marco, Paul's rival for Lili's affection, the always reliable Paul Schloeffler performs with style, right down to his terrific magic act topper which will delight children only slightly more than the rest of us. However, Marco remains, as always, a somewhat thankless role, a smarmy character who gets more stage time than can fully sustain our interest. In the can't miss role of Paul's loveable assistant Jacquot, Eric Michael Gillett is delightful. Gillett's big moment is his rousing performance of "Cirque de Paris."

As Marco's assistant and mistress, Jennifer Allen is truly The Incomparable Rosalie. Allen brings exceptional charm and dimension to an essentially shrill comic character. She captures all of Rosalie's humor without sacrificing her femininity. Her renditions of the comic "Humming" and "Always, Always You" are the stuff of musical comedy nirvana.

If memory serves, there have been any number of adjustments to the script which tend to give the story more gravitas. Additionally, circus owner Schlegel, originally played for laughs as a sort of bullying buffoon, is herein portrayed (quite nicely by Nick Wyman) as an overbearing boss.

The circus elements which are intrinsic to Carnival! are here in full force and probably bigger and better than ever. There are excellent magic tricks spread over two acts (credited to Peter Samuelson and The Afterglow group) which are first rate throughout. Aerialist Mam Smith is most graceful and entertaining. There is the extended puppet show set to a number of bright Bob Merrill tunes. The employment of the full sized puppets here will delight the youngsters, although it created some thematic problems for me. As this is a divertissement in which we are being entertained by Lili, Paul and Jacquot as they perform on the midway and does not involve the psychological underpinning for their presence, I think that the puppet stage sized ones operated only by Paul and Jacquot should be employed here.

The lively choreography of Peter Pucci, the spacious and circusy set of Christopher Barreca abetted by the striking lighting of Donald Holder, and the rich costumes of Michelle R. Phillips, which enhance both mood and character, all make sizable contributions to Erica Schmidt's overriding vision.

Michael Stewart's book seems stronger than in the past because of the weight which Schmidt's concept lends to it. Bob Merrill's lilting score is well crafted and appropriately old fashioned (as much of it was when Carnival! premiered in 1961). We are not likely to have its like again. Like Carnival! itself, it is both timeless and of a world which no longer exists.

Erica Schmidt's production of Carnival! is seriously good work. Not a revisal, it pays tribute to Gower Champion, Bob Merrill and Michael Stewart by preserving and deepening their vision.

Carnival! continues performances (Eves.: Wed., Thurs. & Sun. 7:30 p.m. Fri., Sat. 8 PM; Mats. Thurs., Sat. & Sun. 7:30 PM) through April 9, 2006 at Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041; Box Office: 973-376-4343; online:

Carnival! Music and Lyrics by Bob Merrill, Book on Michael Stewart, adapted from a screenplay by Helen Deutsch; Directed by Erica Schmidt

Cast (in order of appearance):
Jacquot…………………Eric Michael Gillett
B. F. Schlegel………………………Nick Wyman
Greta Schlegel…………...Alexandra Cassens
Greta's Sister………………………….Julia Sann
The Incomparable Rosalie……...Jennifer Allen
Marco The Magnificent……….Paul Schoeffler
Princess Olga………………...Krissy Richmond
Gladys Zuwicki……Nikka Graff Lanzarone
Gloria Zuwicki…………….Sarah Lin Johnson
Aerialist……………………………….Mam Smith
Grobert………………………….Richard Pruitt
Paul Berthalet…………………Charlie Pollock
Lili……………………………...Elena Shaddow
Renardo / Dr. Glass……………….Drew Cortese
Marguerite………………………Benjie Randall

And Jason Babinsky, Albert Christmas, Jim Corti, Michael H. Fielder, Hector Flores, David Garry, Vinson German, Mindy Wallace

Photo: Jerry Dalia

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