The Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris has arrived at the Paper Mill Playhouse, but despite its tuneful, richly delivered score and the presence of some cuddly life-size puppets, the 1961 Bob Merrill musical “Carnival” is a rather sluggishly staged and too often, uncomfortably tiresome affair. Send in the clowns!
Source for the tuner is the 1953 MGM screen musical “Lili,” scripted by Helen Deutsch from a story by Paul Gallico, about a displaced waif who finds refuge in a rundown traveling circus, where she falls in love with a womanizing magician. Lili is subsequently employed by a scowling puppeteer who finds it awkward to disclose his secret passion for her.
Despite the presence of a fire-eater, a handful of tumbling acrobats, a dazzling aerialist and vendors hawking wares in the aisles, “Carnival” is too often a dark and solemn balancing act.
Director Erica Schmidt has made a concentrated effort to capture the frayed textures of a tacky traveling European circus. While she has laced the gloom and glitter with the proper elements of decay and disillusionment, the pace, which may quicken in time, was unbearably sluggish on opening night.
What really survives with distinction are Merrill’s melodic score and his character-defining, plot-driving lyrics.
As the disarmingly naive Lili, a dewy-eyed Elena Shaddow adds a Raggedy Ann wistfulness to carny life. She has a sweet, creamy and expressive voice that brings a satisfying glow to “Mira,” in which she reflects on her hometown; the confident declaration “Yes, My Heart”; and the score’s most enduring hit, “Love Makes the World Go Round.”
Instead of the customary handheld puppets, the toothy walrus Horrible Henry, Renardo the fox and padded, bewigged unicyclist Carrot Top are life-size puppets manipulated by black-clad actors. The concept works quite nicely, adding a human touch to their conversations with Lili.
The scenes in which Lili shares her disillusionment and frustrations with her puppet pals create a sugary comfort zone, set to the confectionary pleasures of “Beautiful Candy” and “Yum Ticky Ticky Tum Tum.”
Paul Schoeffler brings smarmy dash to the role of Marco the Magnificent. “Always, Always You” finds the vain magician thrusting swords through a tiny cabinet that houses his imprisoned assistant. In both song and spirit, it’s a smart and funny turn.
Charles Pollock is properly sullen in the role of the embittered, lame puppeteer. His character is best defined in song, and Pollock has a robust voice. With “Her Face” and his ardent confessional “She’s My Love,” he manages to croon and snarl with vigorous self-pity.
As Rosalie the Incomparable, the magician’s brash assistant, Jennifer Allen misses the caustic humor that might have provided the show with its missing chuckles. Anyone who saw Kaye Ballard in the original production will recall the comic potential of the role.
Eric Michael Gillett (for a decade the ringmaster for Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus) leads the dance corps in a buoyant parade of spinning umbrellas in the song “Cirque de Paris.”
A dazzling aerialist swathed in billowing white drapery, Mam Smith owes a debt to Cirque du Soleil for one of the show’s most stunning turns. The purposeful, gloomy set and blandly colorless costumes well define the carnival’s tacky ambience.
For the record, Paper Mill’s history with “Carnival” dates back 32 years to a production starring a 17-year-old Liza Minnelli as Lili, in what reportedly was her second professional theatrical role.