Reviewed by G.L. Horton
The heroine of Carnival is Lili Daurier ( Donna Perry ), a pure-hearted girl child from an isolated little village in France who is left alone and defenseless in a world full of strangers. Eventually she finds friends and family with a set of puppets on a Carnival midway. I wondered whether Alex would be too young able to follow the love story, or whether, like Lili, he would be unable to link the kind and loving puppet Carrot-top with the harsh personality of Paul ( Timothy J. Fitzgerald), the crippled and bitter puppeteer who uses Carrot-top and his fictitious friends the Fox and Walrus to express the vulnerable side of his nature. This did turn out to be a bit of a problem, and not only for Alex. Alex could follow the story, all right; he found it absorbing. But he wasn't at all sure that the story had the right ending for "happily ever after", or that in the words of the show's best-known song, "Love Makes The World Go Round".
"Carnival" begins on the impressively tacky and deceptively spacious set designed by Ronald L. Dion with the Parade of the performers in the colorful costumes designed by Richard Itczak. David W. Frank as Schlegel, the company manager, urges them all to put on their best display to draw bigger and better crowds. The Grande Imperial Cirque de Paris has fallen on hard times, but Schlegel believes that some day it will be popular again, with first class acts and three rings. Meanwhile, the manager makes do with the acts he's got: a stilt walker ( Jill McNeil) , a pair of phony Siamese twins, ( Lynda D'Amour & Christine Freeman ) a snake charmer (Lorraine Burgos ), a strong man ( Peter Allen ), a clown or two,-- and the Carnival's most popular attraction, the charismatic magician Marco the Magnificent ( Juan Luis Acevedo ) and his glamorous assistant the Incomparable Rosalie, played with verve and plenteous vulgarity by Turtle Lane's reliable comedienne Susan Walsh.
Lili wanders in to this alien world because her dying grandfather has commended her to the care of his old friend who runs the Carnival's souvenir stand, a man who has agreed to give Lili shelter and a chance to earn her living, But when Lili arrives from Mira via "two busses and a train" she discovers that her grandfather's old friend, like her dear grandfather, is dead. There is no money left to go back to Mira, no one to take her in there if she did go back. The new souvenir stand owner softens towards Lili when she sings that he must be "A Very Nice Man" -- but it appears that he is only willing to take Lili in if he can take advantage of her. Then what will become of her?
Marco the Magnificent catches sight of Lili, and he recognizes in her worshipful eyes just the sort of girl he likes to have hanging around the carnival adoring him. Acevado has a delightful time with Marco, launching into a parody of swashbuckling romance with the help of the tango-ing male ensemble in "A Sword and a Rose and a Cape." Marco looks totally confident that Lili will be impressed, even if his back-up group, the jaded Carnies, see only an aging roue, a posturing figure of fun. Acevado quickly has the audience on his side -- how can anyone not enjoy a man who enjoys himself the way he does?
The other man who takes an interest in Lili is Jacquot ( Chris Porth ), who works with the crippled puppeteer, and tries to persuade his partner that Lili would be a good addition to their act as a sort of mediator between the audience of children and the puppets. Paul was a dancer, before the war ended his hopes of a career. His puppet show is failing too, and in his despair Paul lashes out at Lili, and at his old friend Jacquot. But Lili's assistance proves invaluable, inspiring Berthalet to more appealing characterizations for his puppets, and awakening in Lili a gift for performance that is rooted in her open-hearted acceptance of the puppets as "real".
Berthalet's show is a success, and moves from the sideshow to the main tent. The Carnival is on the rise, too, and may once more have some claim to its title of "The Grande Imperial Cirque de Paris". But the girl makes no connection between her beloved puppet friends and the cruel man who is the hidden source of the puppets' voices and movement, the man who insults and humiliates her in rehearsal. Lili sings to us: "I Hate Him" -- even as Paul simultaneously reveals in song that he has fallen in love with her and is in unbearable agony because he is sure that Lili can only hate the man his bitter experience has made him.
Fitzgerald plays Paul with gripping intensity, and sings his tortured music with a rich baritone. Fitzgerald expresses the harshness of Berthalet so well that it is difficult to see the tender artistic person underneath the defensive bluster, or to understand why Jacquot puts up with Paul's insulting behavior. It is very difficult to hope that Lili and Paul will become a couple. Perhaps it is a change in social perception since the post W.W.II setting, or since the 1961 premiere, but all the warning bells are ringing for the long-term consequences of a romantic relationship between a sweet and simple young woman and a brooding, touchy, damaged and angry man: "beware-- abuse ahead"! The response of Alex, and of the woman sitting next to me, was unequivocal: Lili should go with Marco, he's the fun one!
I have only seen a few of the many leading roles Donna Parry has sung at the Turtle Lane, but as Lili she is giving the best acting performance I have seen from her yet. Her gestures and line readings are all those of an innocent teenager, her big round eyes are filled with the wonder of the tawdry carnival that is her only hope, and terror that she will not be able to survive in such a place. Lili treats her friends the puppets like real people, because she believes in them. Parry has a rich voice, a good voice, and the vocal ability to sing the difficult though lovely music that composer Bob Merrill has assigned to Lili -- a part that was played on Broadway by Anna Maria Alberghetti. But unfortunately, dialogue and gesture and even musical ability is only a small part of what Carnival needs to make its fairy-tale story convincing. Parry's lovely voice is a classically trained, mature-sounding one, the product of conservatories and experience and iron control: a matron's voice. Its sound is not credible coming from the throat of a naive child who has never before traveled past the boundaries of Mira, the tiny country village where she was born and raised. Such a voice provides perforce a comment on poor Lili's virginal emotions, rather than a direct expression of them.
The Turtle Lane ensemble could help the leads make the audience want to believe in the fairy tale by filling in their own unwritten "backstories" to round off a few of the show's rougher edges and make the Carnival itself seem a warm and attractive family. Opening night most of the performers seemed overly concerned with their own assignments, with "getting it right" for director Lora Chase , choreographer George McCarthy , or music directior Fred Frabotta. The orchestra, too, seemed unusually nervous, with more wrong notes than is their competent custom. But most of these people are Turtle Lane regulars who have been in this together before, some of them in dozens of shows. In the course of "Carnival"'s considerable run, supported by the fans and friends who will turn up in the audience and share their instructive responses, the show is sure to take on extra depth and smoothness and credibility, and to be buoyed by that family-feeling that is really what makes any show at Turtle Lane a "family show".