So where has this little gem been hiding? Following the original David Merrick/Gower Champion production’s 719-perf run on Broadway in the early ’60s, “Carnival!” largely disappeared into the neglected musical dungeon, with only a smattering of noteworthy escapes since, including a 2002 City Center Encores! revival. The Bob Merrill and Michael Stewart tuner has surfaced at the Kennedy Center in delightful shape, under the discerning eye of director-choreographer Robert Longbottom.
Carefully selected and meticulously mounted revivals have become a Kennedy Center trademark under chieftain Michael Kaiser. As in the center’s Sondheim and Tennessee Williams festivals, it delivers exclusive runs of full-scale productions that generally meet high standards. Such is the case with this dazzling $4 million show, which has a 24-piece orchestra and not a single corner shaved.
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“Carnival!” is the disarming tale of an innocent young girl swept up in the seedy world of a traveling French circus, where she falls prey to one licentious performer and enchants a shy puppeteer. It is an unabashedly sentimental yet timeless piece that never confuses good and evil. Merrill’s varied score features catchy melodies highlighted by the evergreen “Love Makes the World Go Round.”
Show has been trimmed to a brisk two hours and change with the elimination of one number (“A Very Nice Man”), one minor character and the intermission. Book revisions were made by author Francine Pascal, sister of the late Stewart.
The talented cast assembled for this three-week run was in high gear on opening night, starting with the most innocent of ingenues played by relative unknown Ereni Sevasti. A real catch for the role of Lili, she introduces her pure soprano right off in the sweet number, “Mira,” and from then on, never stops charming the audience.
Other principals include Sebastian La Cause as the deliciously pompous cad, Marco the magician. He and his perpetually jealous assistant (Natascia Diaz) keep the slender plot churning as they spar over affections and entertain with big numbers including “Magic, Magic.” Jonathan Lee Iverson is also full of bombast as the circus owner and ringmaster.
In this conflicting carnival world of joyous make-believe and bitter reality, the heart of the show beats around the adorable puppets, designed by Ed Christie, who assists actors Jim Stanek (as the embittered Paul) and Michael Arnold (as his earnest assistant Jacquot) in their performances. Seems that Paul can only voice his deepest feelings through his puppets, a true inconvenience when trying to woo the sensitive Lili. But the pair and friends combine for plenty of magic, including the numbers, “Yum Ticky Ticky Tum Tum” and “Beautiful Candy.”
Under Longbottom’s intricate staging, the action is a nonstop parade of circus acts and shenanigans, embellished with athletic ensemble choreography inserted among juggling, tumbling and rope tricks. Even the dancing bears get to show their fancy steps. Then the mood shifts adroitly when things get serious.
It’s all topped with extremely colorful and lavish sets by Andrew Jackness and costumes from Paul Tazewell in a production lit to perfection by Ken Billington. How elaborate is this musical? Its expensive props include two puppet theaters and 16 puppets. Stunned auds get to see a complicated circus set with lights assembled in seconds before their eyes, surely a logistical feat on the Eisenhower stage.