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).

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.

Carnival.
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.

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