Although lyrical is not a word usually associated with Eugene O'Neill, composer and librettist Merrill turned the playwright's Anna Christie into 1957's New Girl in Town and his Ah, Wilderness into 1959's Take Me Along. As lyricist, Merrill also helped transform Fanny Brice's life into Funny Girl (1964), and he massaged the movie Some Like It Hot into the stage's Sugar (1972). Yet despite its rave reviews and hit status on Broadway, Carnival has failed to become a staple in regional theater. Now it joins another long-ignored musical, High Button Shoes (beginning August 27), in Royal Palm's summer season. This marks the third consecutive year the company has presented neglected gems, following 1995's revival of Little Me and last summer's Take Me Along.
McArt shows a lot of guts in casting these four works locally and fitting them onto the Royal Palm's postage stamp-size stage, given that each was originally written as a star vehicle for a specific artist: Take Me Along featured Jackie Gleason; Neil Simon tailored the multicharacter leading man's role in Little Me for Sid Caesar; to beef up his first starring role, Phil Silvers revised the book to High Button Shoes with the musical's director George Abbott; and Carnival, although it picked up a Tony Award for Anna Maria Alberghetti's performance as Lili, was really built around Gower Champion's magical staging.
For the current production, director Bob Bogdanoff mimics Champion's 1961 innovation of having the cast enter through the aisles. Then he goes one further by having his actors play out scenes between the dinner tables, inventively making the most of limited theater space. Similarly, in a nod to one-ring tent-show staging, choreographer Jeff Murphy cleverly creates tight circular dances for the 21-member company. Regrettably, Bogdanoff is less imaginative in overcoming the musical's dramaturgical deficiencies, and the one-note performances he elicits from the cast result in a disappointing revival. Like their masked sixteenth-century commedia dell'arte predecessors, Bogdanoff's traveling players act as though they too have permanently affixed expressions and characterizations: Garon's leer is never supplanted by cunning sneers or remorseful frowns; Letourneau's body language and delivery are as stiff as Paul's bad leg; and Haroutounian's unflinching smile of youthful innocence made my cheeks ache.
Then again, Bogdanoff doesn't have Champion's resources. The Royal Palm's set design is reduced to props that can be carried; costumes are rented rather than designed, and the music comes from a tape rather than live musicians. He does, however, get solid support from lighting designer Ginny Adams, who not only illuminates the aisle scenes but also manages to set the mood, and from the fanciful set dressings and evocative rope trapeze ladders of scenic designer Michael Miles.
But like I said, I think all carnivals present risks, and this one hasn't pulled into town in more than two decades. Whether it's a stuffed toy dangling from a stick or a forgotten musical, I'll always take a chance on a novelty.
Music and lyrics by Bob Merrill; book by Michael Stewart; directed by Bob Bogdanoff; with Jennifer Haroutounian, Yves Letourneau, Leigh Bennett, William Garon, Kevin Bogan, and Louis Cutolo. Through August 24. For more information call 800-841-6765 or see "Calendar Listings.