Slight of Hand

Despite its man-eating tigers, ferocious lions, and thundering elephants, the circus never frightens me. Not surprising, really -- it's merely theater where I can watch brave acts of skill from my comfortable seat (although I sometimes have trouble applauding with my hands glued together by cotton candy). Carnivals are another matter entirely. While most people flock to the fortunetellers and the games of chance, my heart races at other mysteries of the unknown: Who inspected this ride? When was the last time the gyro cart's grill was cleaned? This is the bathroom?

In an encouraging feat of box-office daring, Boca Raton's Royal Palm Dinner Theatre, which usually stages only guaranteed crowd pleasers, makes way for the jugglers, stilt walkers, snake charmers, and roustabouts in Bob Merrill's seldom produced Carnival. Although it boasts the 1961 Best Musical Award from the New York Drama Critics Circle, an old-fashioned hummable score, and the vestiges of musical comedy's golden age, Carnival has not seen a South Florida production in at least twenty years. To help make it work, Royal Palm producer Jan McArt indulges in a little theatrical three-card monte, highlighting the musical's lost treasures while diverting attention from its many shortcomings.

From its opening moments, Carnival aims to capture the innocent charm of Lili, the 1953 film musical on which it is based. Without a standard musical comedy overture to provide the expected fanfare, the cast creates its own ballyhoo by bounding down the aisles in a colorful parade of sideshow harem girls and clowns. While the third-rate carnival sets up on the outskirts of a European town in the late Forties, naive teenager Lili (Jennifer Haroutounian) arrives on the scene, searching in vain for a friend of her recently deceased father. Simple but far from plain, she catches the eye of the troupe's philandering magician, Marco the Magnificent (William Garon). He arranges for her to join the carnival, much to the distress of his girlfriend and costar Rosalie (Leigh Bennett). Credulous Lili falls under the magician's charismatic spell, confiding everything to her new best friends, four puppets operated by Jacqnot (Kevin Bogan) and Paul (Yves Letourneau). A cynical man, embittered by an accident that left him lame and ended his career as a famous dancer, Paul incorporates Lili into his act while secretly desiring to add her to his life as well. The musical's coming-of-age story climaxes when Lili, confused by Marco's advances and wounded by Paul's jealousy, is forced to wake from her dream world.

The fluffy plot is only dramatic rigging that supports its high-flying musical comedy numbers. In the eye-popping "Always Always You," Bennett's delightful Rosalie, seated in a magician's box, gets pointed reassurance of her magician's faithfulness as Marco proclaims his love for her while thrusting sword after sword through the box. In two separate lively dance numbers, Garon's likably roguish Marco joins a carousing group of carnies in a jubilant celebration of the Latin lover in every man ("A Sword and a Rose and a Cape"), and Bogan's affable Jacqnot leads the chorus's dreams of success in the high-kicking and cartwheeling "Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris." Though Carnival contains only a few romantic show tunes, Haroutounian's lovely, clear notes and Letourneau's full, strong voice make the most of them, particularly as Lili and Paul contemplate each other from afar in the compelling "I Hate Him/Her Face." And those are just the humans! It's the puppets that really deliver the musical's much needed air of wonder. Modeled after the Broadway originals, the uncomplicated puppets (actually handled by Letourneau and Bogan) prove you don't have to be a muppet to be a star -- or a child to be enchanted.

Lili joins the shy boy, comic walrus, lecherous fox, and grand lady puppets in the genuinely beguiling medley "Yum Ticky"/"We're Rich"/"Beautiful Candy," as the quintet entices midway crowds to part with their cash. I sure bought it; for my money this medley surpasses the show's big hit, written to replace the film's "Hi Lili, Hi Lo," in which a forsaken Lili and her puppet pals memorably reassure each other that "Love Makes the World Go Round." But even puppets can't provide sufficient sleight of hand to camouflage the musical's flawed romantic plot. Michael Stewart's book presents not just an unsophisticated heroine, but one who also chooses to believe the puppets are real. When you further consider that she refers to her counterparts in the romantic triangle as "Mister Paul" and "Mister Marco," the March-September romances begin to look like pedophilia, with the men vying to be the first to take advantage of the pretty little half-wit.

With a script and score overly devoted to second-banana clowning and sideshow spectacle, Carnival doesn't have the balance needed to successfully walk the delicate tightrope connecting a young girl's innocence and her romantic awakening. Perhaps this explains the infrequent productions given a work by Broadway scribes with glowing track records. Stewart and original Carnival director/choreographer Gower Champion scored a huge hit in 1960 with Bye Bye Birdie, and they would team up again in 1964 for Hello, Dolly! For his part, Merrill, their collaborator on Carnival, was known for fashioning bankable musicals from existing material (this marked the first time a stage musical was adapted from a film musical).

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