Moon’s Carnival: midway between comedy, drama

Apr 06

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Optimistic orphan Lili Daurier (Ashley Jarrett) makes friends with the carnival puppets, unaware that puppeteer Paul Berthalet (Ryan Drummond, left) and his assistant Jacquot (Michael Doppe, center) are the people pulling the strings in the 1961 musical Carnival revived by 42nd Street Moon. Below: Rosalie (Dyan McBride, left) eyes Jarrett’s Lili as she watches the magic of Marco the Magnificent (Bill Olson). Photos by David Allen

Watching the 1961 musical Carnival, a hit on Broadway, it’s fairly easy to see why the show was never a candidate for major Broadway revival or a staple of community theaters. The score, by Bob Merrill, has real charm and beauty mixed with pleasant mediocrity. The standout song, “Love Makes the World Go Round,” is used to great effect, although the most poignant song in the score is a longing-for-home number called “Mira” that perfectly captures what the show wants to be: a sweet, melodic story with melancholy and pain running not too far under the surface. And therein lies the tricky part. This musical, with a book by Michael Stewart, looks like a happy mainstream musical, but it’s much more complex than that. In many ways, it succeeds in being musical comedy and drama, but the creators didn’t have quite the sophistication to pull it off – or maybe they felt they were offering as much sophistication or complexity as an early ’60s Broadway audience could handle.

Whatever the reason, Carnival Remains a curiosity, and thanks to 42nd Street Moon, the great reviver of Broadway curiosities, treasures and castoffs, we get to explore Carnival games in a production that lets us experience what the show does best. Director Greg MacKellan and choreographer Jayne Zaban guide a spirited cast through a bright 2 1/2 hours filled with some lively moves and some gorgeous voices.

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In its two key roles, Carnival requires performers who can really sing and really act with an almost operatic intensity. Leading lady Lili Daurier (Ashley Jarrett) is freshly orphaned and just off the bus looking for a friend of her late father’s who sells souvenirs in a second-rate French carnival. The man she’s looking for is dead, and she quickly learns that carnies who offer a helping hand may have other body parts in mind. Lili, who is described later in the show as a “grown-up girl with the mind of a child,” is a tricky character. Is she simply a country bumpkin so naive to the ways of the world she might as well be 9 years old? Or is this more of a Light in the Piazza situation in which her simplemindedness is more complex? Hard to know, but Lili’s sweetness and sincerity are never in question, and those qualities are the primary reason she bonds with the puppets in the carnival’s rag-tag puppet show and helps turn the struggling act into the hit of the midway.

The primary puppeteer, Paul Berthalet (Ryan Drummond) is a disillusioned former dancer dealing with war injuries and a life he neither expected nor likes. He’s immediately skeptical of Lili and her infatuation with the rakish magician Marco the Magnificent (Bill Olson), but at some point, he falls for her and is only able to express himself when he’s performing as one of the puppets. When he’s just himself, he’s downright cruel to Lili, much to the disgust of his assistant, Jacquot (an affecting Michael Doppe).

Both Drummond and Jarrett have powerful voices and give convincing performances, especially Jarrett, whose interaction with the rather disappointing (but well performed) puppets is filled with childlike glee.

With such interesting central characters, it’s too bad that the secondary love story, between Marco and his assistant, the Incomparable Rosalie (Dyan McBride) relies more on comedy than complexity, and the introduction of a potential fiancé for Rosalie, a goofy vet from Zurich, doesn’t really add much to the overall story, although McBride’s number, “Humming,” is performed with her customary aplomb and crack comic timing.

Carnival, in the end, plays it safely down the middle, trying to be a family-friendly musical with darker undertones. There’s a gentle charm to the show, and this production’s musical director, Dave Dobrusky, makes a melodic case for the best of Merrill’s score, but there seems to be an impulse on the part of the creators to make something more significant here. The songless final stretch of the musical is all about drama and character and not at all about fulfilling musical comedy expectations.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

42nd Street Moon’s Carnival continues through April 21 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

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