This article was corrected on Feb. 14, 2002.
It’s a strange musical indeed that apportions much of its charm and not a few of its best songs to the relationship between a girl and a gang of puppets. But such is the case with “Carnival,” the 1961 tuner with a score by Bob Merrill that is the opening entry in the new season of Encores!, City Center’s concert stagings of neglected or not-so-neglected Broadway musicals.
Based on the Leslie Caron movie “Lili,” “Carnival” was a substantial hit. A David Merrick production directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, who was hot off “Bye Bye Birdie,” the tuner ran for more than 700 perfs.
Without a Broadway revival since (Disney recently workshopped it but has no plans to produce it), the show is now best remembered for its single hit song, a carousel of a tune called “Love Makes the World Go Round” that is woven like a bright streamer throughout the show. Title and tune indicate the high sugar quotient of this little musical fable.
Merrill’s pleasant but unmemorable score also features some high-spirited novelty numbers for Lili and the puppets, comic vamps for the secondary leads and a soaring ballad or two for Paul, the troubled puppeteer who falls in love with Lili but can only express his affection through those fancy socks on the end of his hands. (The Jim Henson Co. has supplied some brand new but recognizably Muppet-like puppets for the production.)
As is usually the case at Encores!, the merits of the score are put on glowing display by the talents of a first-rate cast of musical performers. Brian Stokes Mitchell plays the introverted Paul, a dancer whose career was sidelined by injury; he hires the orphaned young Lili to assist him in his puppet act and tries to keep her from the lecherous clutches of the carnival’s resident magician, Marco the Magnificent (Douglas Sills).
Mitchell was reportedly ailing on opening night, which may have explained his sometimes distracted manner in the book scenes. Nevertheless, his plump baritone sounded pretty spectacular in his major solos, and he brought a lovely, dark dramatic conviction to the powerful ballad “Her Face,” in which Paul finally comes to recognize his affection for Lili. The audience roared its approval.
There may be another explanation for Mitchell’s occasionally distant air: The show’s book, by Michael Stewart, doesn’t have too much to offer by way of characterization, at least in the depiction of the relationship between Lili and Paul. The puppets, with a little help from concert adapter Wendy Wasserstein, make rather more distinctive impressions, and it’s fun to hear Mitchell transform that handsome baritone into a falsetto squeak or a dopey rumble when he’s voicing the puppets, a lovelorn walrus named Horrible Henry, a randy fox and the somewhat more blandly lovable fellow named Carrot Top.
Anne Hathaway, best known as the star of the movie “The Princess Diaries,” is remarkably unaffected and winning as the super-waif Lili — a role that could easily turn to treacle if treated less sincerely. Her sweet rapport, both musical and dramatic, with those fuzzy critters in the show’s series of mock-European kiddy ditties at the top of the second act is actually a highlight of the evening. Hathaway has a pretty, downy lyric soprano that’s free of the kind of showbiz brass that creeps into the sound of most Broadway ingenues — a quality that would undermine both character and musical completely.
She is also convincingly girlish, which is where the show’s innocent depiction of a budding romance begins to curdle a bit, at least in our more cynical age. At one point Paul describes Lili as “a grownup girl with the mind of a child,” and her apparent unawareness of the mechanics of puppetry makes you wonder just how grown up she really is. (Or maybe how mentally deficient.) As a result, Paul’s romantic attraction to her doesn’t seem much less distasteful, which is to say pedophilic, than that of the villain Marco. (Maybe casting a very young performer as Paul could correct this; maybe not.)
Perhaps this is why, at least in this version, as much stage time is given to the comic contretemps between Marco, whom Sills plays amusingly as a sort of Broadway matinee idol gone slightly to seed, and his gold-digging assistant Rosalie, embodied with typical sass by Debbie Gravitte. Their second-act duet, “Always, Always You,” was improved on opening night by some amusing missteps with the classic trick involving the lady in the box and all those swords. The solid voices of both performers get nice workouts in a pair of comic solos.
Notwithstanding the fine vocalizing on hand here, Merrill’s score probably shone more brightly in the context of the apparently quite magical original production. The carny atmosphere is approximated here by scenic consultant John Lee Beatty and director Kathleen Marshall’s somewhat generic sideshow-style choreography but, for better or worse, the Encores! aesthetic was created to emphasize the musical values of musicals, and the most exciting Encores! presentations are always the ones that reveal a really rich, unheralded score (My experience doesn’t date back to the series’ beginnings, but I’d put “St. Louis Woman” at the top of the list of the ones I’ve seen).
In this case, and despite the superior work of the Coffee Club Orchestra under the fine-tuned musical direction of Rob Fisher, the score ultimately comes across as efficient and energetic, enlivened by elements of pseudo-European kitsch, but somewhat generic and lacking in the sustained lyrical power of a first-rate show. All too often, just as you’re expecting to take off to that airy, exalted realm that is the destination of the best show tunes, Merrill’s inspiration seems to dissipate and the excitement recedes. We’re dropped back into the book and its flimsy, spun-sugar story … and all those puppets.