Despite the sunny exclamation point, a balloon-filled poster and its music-box ditty “Love Makes the World Go Round,” “Carnival!” is an bittersweet tuner that touches on sadness, desperation and remoteness. In the smart, stylish and sensitive revival at Goodspeed Opera House, helmer Darko Tresnjak doesn’t shy away from these elements, but he also knows he has an entertainment to present, one that the features magic, puppetry and aerial work — as well as a luxurious score by Bob Merrill that is well presented onstage and in the pit.
Francine Pascal, sister of book writer Michael Stewart, has revised the show, ostensibly clarifying and strengthening relationships but also giving the heroine, innocent refuge Lili (Lauren Worsham), less of a naif quality. The show isn’t a natural for wide crossover appeal, but this tasteful, multilayered production does re-enforce the view that it is still a gem to be valued.
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Setting the piece in a post-WWII France gives the show an understandable war-weary context as the performers in this third-tier provincial circus struggle to lift themselves up and begin again.
That includes Lili, an orphaned teen of fragile bearing but inner strength who finds temporary refuge with the transient company. She is looked after from afar by Paul (Adam Monley), a physically and emotionally wounded vet who can talk to her only through his puppets.
Worsham and Monley have gorgeous voices that do justice to Merrill’s not-by-the-numbers score. Offering strong support are Mike McGowan’s Marco the Magnificent, Laurent Giroux’s slightly surreal circus owner Schlegel and Michelle Blakely’s feisty Rosalie. (McGowan and Giroux are ankling this week for other gigs.)
Production values are topnotch. David P. Gordon creates a lovely world of glitter and grime, Fabio Toblini’s costumes have a witty flair and Peggy Hickey’s choreography shows there’s much life in the old circus yet. Robert Smythe’s old-school puppet creations mesmerize not just Lili but the audience as well.