Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Carnival of lost souls

As the trusting Lili, Victoria Thornsbury only finds love at one remove.
I'm torn over Gloucester Stage's current production of Carnival (which closes this weekend).  On the one hand, this intriguing but problematic musical is rarely done, despite its ravishing score - so simply seeing it in any form is to be reminded of how sophisticated and beautiful pop culture was once allowed to be.  And this production is certainly powerfully sung - indeed, some of the vocal performances here border on the terrific.

So I'm glad I saw the Gloucester version, even though it stumbles repeatedly over this show's tricky mood and the harshness of its action.  Carnival , which follows the misadventures of a waif named Lili who has basically run away to the circus, aims to simultaneously conjure the magic of the big top and side show while simultaneously revealing the cruelty lurking behind their gaudy spell.  At a deeper level, of course, it's actually about the deceitful magic of romance itself - as you might guess from its signature hit, "Love Makes the World Go Round" - or even, perhaps, about the seductive dishonesty of men (or rather Men with a capital M).

Not that the Men of Carnival are an appealing lot.  There's the barker who tries to take advantage of Lili only minutes after she has arrived, and there's the shabby Marco the Magnificent, the sexist stage magician long past his prime who's hoping to ditch his current assistant ("The Incomparable Rosalie") and turn Lili into his next trick.  And then there's Paul, the sensitive puppeteer who has been emotionally crippled by his war wounds, and who can only woo Lili through the screen of his puppet show (at top).  All of these men abuse our heroine in various ways - but the crux of the plot is whether Lili will finally be able to divine that only Paul (who is so racked by jealousy that he's sometimes the cruelest of the lot) has the ability to truly love her.

No doubt you can see the problems inherent in a show like Carnival in a politically-correct age such as ours.  Poor Lili suffers so much (at the climax she's even struck in the face) that at times the plot seems to be channeling pure misogyny - and alas, director Eric C. Engel has apparently taken that idea and run with it.  This is a Carnival in which the men have no seductive charm at all - Marco is just a snide user, and Paul is all but drowning in self-pity; and thus while the production concept comes off as supremely knowing,  when Lilli invests her faith in Paul's puppet show, she seems mentally challenged rather than winsomely gullible (and we can't see in her delusion the musical's intended metaphor for our own trust in love's promises).  This is the kind of "dark" interpretation that sounds "challenging" on paper, I know; only if we ourselves are not somehow drawn into Carnival's tawdry spell - if we never believe that, despite everything, love can make the world go round - then we never feel for Lili's travails (we just think she needs an intervention), and there's simply no show.  Instead we get an odd lecture on the structural mechanics of sexism, interrupted occasionally by a pretty song.

Ta-da!  It's the magic of sexism! With Daniel Robert Sullivan, Victoria Thornsbury, and Shannon Lee Jones.
Oh, well - let's talk some more about those songs (but not about this production's rather awkward choreography).  Engel has obviously cast for vocal prowess, and there are some terrific voices here - Victoria Thornsbury warbles like an angel as Lili, and Gus Curry almost makes you love Paul, too, every time he opens his mouth to sing rather than speak.  Meanwhile Shannon Lee Jones and Daniel Robert Sullivan, as Rosalie and Marco respectively, both demonstrate they knew how to wrap themselves around a show tune, too.  Even the chorus (which included the versatile John King) sounded great.  There were occasional balance problems, given the lack of a pit in the Gloucester space, but these were generally passing in nature.  I basically left the show in love, like Lili - only with Bob Merrill's score.

And I think I still respected Michael Stewart's book, despite its obvious issues - I just thought it had been undone by Engel, which seemed strange given his recent triumphs with Alan Ayckbourn (and his buoyant version last summer of The Most Happy Fella).  But here even natural actors like Daniel Robert Sullivan were headed confidently in the wrong direction, while the less-experienced (and less confident) Thornsbury seemed a blank.  And there were conceptual goofs aplenty - for some reason in this French circus, for instance, there was one guy sporting a beret and jaunty bandana, with a thick accent to boot - pourquoi? And to signal that the show was about an awakening, Engel had a crowd of kids literally "wake up" at the start  (and later, to telegraph that his male characters were childish, he sent through a cute little girl in a fake mustache).  If Engel had actually directed the musical appropriately, of course, he wouldn't have needed this kind of semaphore.  But you know, Carnival is supposed to be about learning the facts of life, so hopefully the director has picked up a few pointers by now, too.

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