One of my favorite small theatres in the world is the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. The theatre itself is in a restored Victorian theatre in what resembles a Victorian house situated on the Connecticut River. Over the years they have sent 16 shows to Broadway. Goodspeed Productions have won more than a dozen Tony Awards and the Theatre has won two Special Tonys. I did Mack and Mabel here and had a wonderful time. What a pleasure to go there and see a new production of Carnival by Bob Merrill (who also wrote Funny Girl) with a book by Michael Stewart (Hello Dolly and Mack and Mabel) with new revisions by Francine Pascal. There were several Californians involved in this project, including Darko Tresnjak (formerly of the Old Globe) as director, Peggy Hickey as choreographer, and actors Michael Kostroff and David Engel. California should be proud because this is a magical and sweet production.
The story, which is also the basis for the movie Lili, concerns a naïve and lonely country girl, Lili, whose father has just died and who wanders into a carnival to find work (and love). The musical originally starred Anna Maria Albergetti and Jerry Orbach (in his first Broadway role). She eventually hooks up with an ex-dancer, Paul, who is ashamed of his appearance and hides behind a set of puppets in order to face the world. When Lili tries to commit suicide the puppets speak to her and she is drawn to them because they treat her with love and respect. Without the puppets, Paul is a horror off stage and scares her, so she finds kindness in the company of handsome Marco the Magician (David Engel), a notorious womanizer. Ah, but Lili and Paul secretly love each other and finally reveal their love to each other. The most famous song is “Love Makes The World Go Round” which the cast sings during the curtain call to great effect.
Both director Tresnjak and choreographer Hickey have done a tremendous job here, especially Hickey who has added many dance numbers and turns one song which was rather ordinary in the original, “Cirque de Paris Ballet,” into the show-stopper. Ms. Hickey utilizes a talented cast of very differentiated types but who can all do circus tricks, and creates a whole world with an ensemble of only 10. It is remarkable work.
A petite Lauren Worsham, who really grew on me, plays Lili. She has a lovely voice. Adam Monley is simple yet powerful as Paul, and boy can he sing. The always-amusing Kostroff portrays Schlegal, the head of the circus, and Marco is well played by a dashing David Engel. Michelle Blakely plays Rosalie, Marco’s long-suffering girlfriend, and I found her talented but over the top, which really distorts her feelings for Marco.
My one real problem was the portrayal of Lili at the beginning of the piece. Yes, she believes in puppets and magic, but the actress has been directed or allowed to play this as almost retarded instead of naively and the character is in danger of losing our sympathy.
Overall this production is fantastic and a nice reminder of what a charming and touching musical this is. Carnival plays at the Goodspeed Opera House until Sept. 18th,