The bright banners, the piping calliope, the heady, dark mystery of the carnival has come to replace, at least in some capacity, the pastoral fantasy represented in works like Don Quixote. For us, escape can be found not in the idyllic, rolling hills and meadows trafficked by sheep and shepherds but instead in the gritty byways and dim corners of the carnival, populated by freaks and grifters.
The carnival has captivated the imagination of artists for decades, for no small reason. It featured prominently in Tim Burton's Big Fish; it set the stage for the Showtime drama Carnivalé; it served as the backdrop for the recent Depression-era novel Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen; it prompted Natalie Merchant to dedicate a hit single to it, and Wyclef Jean to theme an entire album after it.
In all these instances and more, the carnival represents the apocalyptic collision of mundane and fantastic, as well as an escape route from the mainstream.
Bob Merrill and Michael Stewart's 1960s musical Carnival!, produced by and performed at the University of Tulsa, embodies this artistic representation of the circus. While heavily influenced by the starry-eyed naïveté of Broadway's Golden Era, the show has its own dark side.
Lili (Claire Ludwig), a young girl orphaned by World War II, tracks down the Schlegel Circus because she's been told that, if she ever needed a job, one of the circus's vendors could provide her one. She discovers, upon arriving, that her contact has also perished, presumably in the war.
She bounces from job to job within the traveling circus, meanwhile falling in love with the magician Marco (Wesam Keesh). She ultimately proves inept at each of these jobs. Her final chance lies in an obscure puppet show, performed by the young veteran Paul (Jonathan Gilland) and his assistant Jacquot (Pete Brennan, Jr.).
Paul has fallen in love with her, but the war has embittered him, and he is unable to express his tender feelings for the young Lili, save through his puppets.
In his daily life, however, he is a slave driver, and treats Lili abominably. They fight. She strikes him; he strikes back. But upon discovering that he was behind the puppets and their sweet words all along, she forgives him, and the play ends happily.
It was unclear to me that Lili did not know Paul was the one behind the puppets, so the big reveal in the end forced me to do some mental shuffling. Her ignorance could have been telegraphed more clearly.
It may seem surprising that Lili could travel with the circus for long without discovering that Paul is the show's puppeteer, but, as Ben Brantley famously wrote in The New York Times of the original Carnival! production, "Lili may be the most unworldly heroine ever in a Broadway musical, dangerously blurring the lines between innocence and mental deficiency." Even Paul, her love interest, calls her "a helpless thing... with the mind of a child."
Fortunately, I saw Ludwig in TU's recent production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, so I can say with confidence that her ease in this role was achieved through craft. In that show, she played (with acumen) a worldly young lass who freely mocked the innocent hero.
Carnival! has her in quite a different role, and she neatly makes the change. For instance, her wide-eyed wonder at the magician Marco's tricks earn her honest laughs from the audience.
Her singing voice, on the other hand, seems a bit thin, especially in her highest register.
Gilland as the limping puppeteer, Paul, has a broad, deep voice, with which he expresses a passionate struggle to overcome his bitter scorn of life and love. Gilland encountered some difficulties in his first song, his voice becoming breathy at the top of his lines, but he was on voice for the rest of the show.
Brennan, Jr. dances as well as he sings. He shines in the second act's biggest number, "Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris," in which he stirs the other performers from their sleep with a grand dream of becoming a royally esteemed troupe.
Marco and his Roustabouts (Seán Stewart, Katie Nixon, and Zachary J. Lamb) also feature in an especially entertaining dance number, "A Sword and a Rose and a Cape," in which Marco seduces Lili with romantic imagery and dashing footwork.
There are so many gems in this ensemble. The various freaks and other performers who comprise the circus travel onto and off the stage during several numbers, journeying even into the house itself, turning the theater into a little carnival. (Don't be too shy to have your palm read or your face painted before the show!)
The set itself sweeps on and offstage as well, thanks to scenic designer Ashley Bellet. Scene changes become part of the show itself, incorporated into its movement and tone. The bright banners glide in on wheeled pedestals, and provide slick entrances and exits for the actors. The broad, swooping linework on the banners parallels the carnival atmosphere.
The production moves so well from one scene to the next that one can consume and digest each song without growing sick of the candied taste. Merrill's music is forgettable, with the noted exception of the catchy "Love Makes the World Go Round." Each number is exactly like lightly buttered popcorn: delicious and with zero nutritional content.
Yet Carnival! itself is not so airy. Remember that Lili has been orphaned by the war, and that Paul, once a great dancer, has been crippled by it. A world of devastation and oblivion surrounds the insular world of the Schlegel Circus, and even inside of this world, Lili is threatened by a potentially disastrous seduction by Marco.
The text never digs too deep into this rich context, but Machele Miller Dill's direction heightens the darker overtones. Though the production delivers the usual spectacle one would expect from a carnival-jugglers on stilts, strongmen, and even an adorable dog-it's not afraid to cast an eye at fate, and to consider the ramifications of disaster.
Carnival! plays at the Chapman Theatre in Kendall Hall on the University of Tulsa campus. It continues from April 24-27. Evening performances begin at 8pm, with Sunday matinees starting at 2pm. Tickets are $7 for regular admission, $5 for non-TU students and for senior citizens, and $2 for TU students. For more information, contact the university's Department of Theatre at 631-2566.
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