The script for Carnival by Michael Stewart and Bob Merrill, the latest offering by Davis Musical Theatre Co., is never going to win any awards for great literature. (Movie buffs will recognize the story as the stage version of the MGM movie, Lili, starring Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer) The thin plot about a young orphan girl who joins a small touring circus needs an exceptionally strong cast to pull it off. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the current production.
The cast simply isn't strong enough to lift the thin story into the realm of believability, or to give it the sense of wonder and fantasy that makes this show work. From the opening circus parade, with a chorus almost, but not quite on pitch, to the earnest but over the top performances of many of the principals, the show disappoints on many levels.
There are some notable exceptions. Sixteen year old Jessica Crouch (opening night was her birthday) is simply outstanding. From the moment she steps on the stage you know she is a pro, and in fact her theatrical history is impressive--from her debut as Baby June in Gypsy through her Elly award wining performance as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. She beautifully portrays the innocent young girl, who is unable to see the tawdriness of this second class circus, but who is carried away by the wonder and the magic.
Lili has been left alone following the death of her grandfather. She travels many miles, on "two buses and a train," from her home town of Mira (a lovely song performed beautifully by Crouch) to meet an old friend of her grandfather's, who once promised to watch out for the girl. She discovers that the friend has died. With no plan and no resources, she manages to get a job working in the carnival's souvenir stand, where she catches the eye of magician Marco the Magnificent (Mark Heckman), who looks to add the young girl to his stable of female admirers, much to the consternation of his glamorous assistant, "The Incomparable Rosalie" (Gina Green).
When Lili is fired by Grobert, the souvenir stand owner (Carl Dvorcek), she is taken under the wing of Jacquot (Clocky McDowell), assistant to puppeteer Paul Berthalet (Troy Thomas).
Thomas, in his debut DMTC performance is also outstanding in his portrayal of the embittered ballet dancer, now grounded by a leg injury acquired during the war, and using his puppets' voices to say the things that he is unable to say himself.
Lili has a special relationship with the puppets and soon her interaction with them, reminiscent of the classic Kukla, Fan and Ollie, turns the languishing puppet show into a strong attraction and she becomes part of the act.
Berthalet finds himself falling in love with the young girl, but cannot bring himself to speak with her. Instead he rages and shouts, leading to the duet "I Hate Him/Her Face." Thomas has a rich, strong baritone voice, which blends beautifully with Crouch's lovely soprano. (Since this is musical comedy, we know that everyone eventually lives happily ever after.)
Director Warren Harrison has used some imaginative staging, which includes parading his cast through the audience, led by ringmaster and circus owner B.F. Schlegel (Ben Bruening), another aspect of the show which will appeal to children. It would be interesting to see the same staging with a stronger cast.
Jeannie and Michelle Pytel are credited with "Scenic Art." The stage is a colorful and effective depiction of a second rate circus, and the red striped tent tops let us know from the very beginning that this is a magical place.
Jean Henderson's costumes are colorful and fun, especially the black striped suit worn by Jacquot.
Children will love the puppets, designed by Melissa Brown. The sound of children's laughter filled the Varsity Theatre whenever the puppets performed. Thomas and McDowell need to take better care to make sure their arms are not seen during the operation of the puppets. While adults in the audience know that they are not real, the fantasy needs to be maintained for children.
The multi-talented Steve Isaacson provided musical direction as well as lighting design. The DMTC orchestra did a credible job.
Children will enjoy the fantasy of "Carnival," whether they are able to follow the romantic story or not. There is enjoyment to be had in the production, even with its weak spots. I'm willing to bet that many in the audience will leave the theatre humming the signature song, "Love Makes the World Go Round."'