Music and Lyrics by Bob Merrill, Book by Michael Stewart, based on material by Helen Deutsch
Original Production Directed and Choreographed by Gower Champion
Garland Civic Theatre
DonnaMarie Knight – Lili
Brandon Borick – Paul Berthalet
Jeremy Duncan – Jacquot
Steve Golin – Marco the Magnificent
Whitney Golin – The Incomparable Rosalie
David Tinney – B.F. Schlegel
Michael Said – Grobert
Troy Murray – Dr. Glass
Erik Ho, Devin Johnson, Jonathan Luce, Troy Murray, Michael Said – Roustabouts
Emma Triana – Princess Olga
Truett Adams – Juggler
BJ Austin, Bella Ritter – Clowns
Rachel Vines – Fortune Teller
Bella Ritter – Greta Schlegel
BJ Austin, Adelina Clamser, Allison Larrea, Jenna Malisheski, Carley Mitchell, Bella Ritter, Emma Triana – Blue Birds
Truett Adams, Allison Larrea, Jenna Malisheski – Aerialists
Hamlet – Rover
Conducted by Jon Schweikhard
Keyboard – Erin McGrew, Bass – Bill Zauner, Drums – Randy Linberg, Violin – Bethany Hardwick, Reeds – Mark Lura
Directed by Patty Granville
Music Direction by John Schweikhard
Cheryl Pellet – Stage Manager, Props
Elizabeth Pellet – Assistant Stage Manager
Scene Design – Teresa Clapper, Wendy Woode
Lighting Design – Hank Baldree
Costume Design – Kerra Sims
Choreography - Nick Leos, Patty Granville
Aerial Choreography - Truett Adams
Dance Captain – Emma Triana
Jeffrey Roper – Microphone Technician
Reviewed Performance: 9/9/2022
Reviewed by Stacey Upton, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
“Carnival” originally had an exclamation mark at the end of its title. The director of the original Broadway show, Gower Champion, had it removed during the original run of 719 performances, saying “It’s not a blockbuster. It’s a gentle show.”
It is a gentle show, one with plenty of balloons, candy, magic, wonder, and most importantly, sweet innocence running through it. However, there is a dark and introspective side to the show as well, which makes it a unique theatrical experience. This musical emerged in a time when “The Fantasticks,” with its spare staging, had impacted what Broadway shows could look like. Carnival is in part a good old-fashioned musical, wherein the two lovers who are destined for each other run into many obstacles, both interior and exterior before finally coming together in the very last moments of the show. It has extravagant numbers one likes to see in a musical, notably “Direct from Vienna,” “Beautiful Candy,” and “Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris.” The show uses both the underlying despair of its setting in a tatty, run-down Carnival and ballads to explore the darker side of this unique piece, wherein the characters question their existence or are nostalgic for what they have lost. The score tips between these two extremes, its tone sometimes very dark, at other times vibrant and full of delight.
Patty Granville has masterfully used the stage at GCT to recreate a traveling carnival. This is a deep and tall space. The live orchestra sits behind the set, separated by a gauzy black scrim. During the opening number, “Direct from Vienna,” the stage fills with roustabouts, jugglers, clowns with balloons, a snake charmer, and silk aerialists who climb high into the air to perform their tricks and stunts. It’s a delightful way for the show to begin. Ms. Granville is well acquainted with this show, having performed as one of the leads in the very first production of it in 1983 for Garland Summer Musicals. That production was directed by Buff Shurr, a wonderful man just now celebrating his 95th year. Mr. Shurr also had a leading role in the show opposite Ms. Granville, Marco the Magnificent. The run of this show is dedicated to him, and rightfully so. He was in the original 1961 Broadway production, first as a Roustabout and dance captain, and later as Marco the Magnificent.
Mr. Shurr was in attendance on opening night, and I spoke with him (and his charming and interesting wife, Janiz) for a few minutes prior to the curtain going up. He told me a few good stories about working with the original Broadway director of the show, Gower Champion, who regularly enjoyed a glass of milk with an egg in it for his breakfast. Mr. Shurr stated that Champion’s gift was that “He had a sixth sense of physicality. He knew how to group his actors, and to give you interesting rhythms.” Mr. Shurr then demonstrated the syncopated clapping and stomping of one of those dance moves, his whole body engaged, his face alight. We got to talking about Broadway, and his career path, which brought him to become a director at Ft. Worth’s Casa Manana for seven years. He told me, “I made one mistake—we all make mistakes, don’t we? Mine was that Gower liked working with me and asked me to come be his assistant on his next Broadway musical which was going to be based on a little Thornton Wilder farce called “The Matchmaker.” Mr. Shurr turned him down to continue to choreograph Industrial shows, which produced a good income. “It was a mistake, that’s for sure,” Mr. Shurr continued. “That musical was ‘Hello Dolly.’”
When I asked him what he thought about seeing the show again after all these years, he said it was “scary, but exciting.” The biggest changes he has seen in the show as it’s been produced since its 1961 debut are the puppets. “They have become more distinct, more human.” I had to let Mr. Shurr go so he could speak to all of his admirers that were gathering. He’d brought the hat he’d worn on Broadway as the dashing lothario, Marco, the Magnificent, and charmed all of us when he put it on his head and struck a dashing pose. What a treasure!
Yes, there is a lovely section of puppetry in the heart of this show, performed by Brandon Borick and Jeremy Duncan. Borick plays the male lead, Paul Berthalet. He has one of the most beautiful, powerful voices I’ve heard in a long time. Standout songs of the evening belong to him; “I’ve Got to Find a Reason,” and “Her Face.” He has a mighty range, and an ability to capture pathos and tragedy without overdoing it. His puppetry is exceptional as well, bringing to life Carrot Top and Fernando the Fox. They are his alter egos, the only way he can express friendship and care. Borick has clearly done work on his complex character of a once-mighty dancer now turned miserable puppeteer in a third-rate carnival. In lesser hands this role might have been merely pathetic. In his, the tightrope walk between falling utterly into despair and hoping for love is perfectly balanced.
Lili is the lovely, innocent orphan girl who comes to the circus after her father dies in hopes that a friend of his, Rodet, can give her a job. Her hopes are dashed, and we see the dirty underside of the Carnival. Grobet, the souvenir salesman, tells her abruptly, “Rodet is dead. Now shoo!” Michael Said performs this part with appropriate sliminess. He lures her inside of his little caravan with the promise of a job, and a shriek is heard. We can guess what has happened. Lili dashes out, hat off, flustered, and then is “saved” by the magician, Marco the Magnificent, whom she promptly falls in love with. Later, when her overly enthusiastic help with a magic trick causes it to go awry, he banishes her. It is only the intervention of the sweet puppet, Carrot Top, who convinces her there is still reason to live.
This show hangs on the idea that Lili is so innocent she believes that the puppets she interacts with are real and that somewhere in the world there is another place like the home she was forced to leave, “where everyone knows my name.” Knight shines in this role. She possesses an exquisite soprano voice, and her delight in all things new is infectious. Knight is a wonderful actress on top of being an excellent singer, and she has that ineffable quality called “stage presence.” You just can’t take your eyes off her when she is onstage. Her interplay with the puppets was delightful. Her acting ability showed through as she grows and changes from pure innocence to someone who can accept that even someone as broken as Paul deserves to be loved. An enchanting performance.
Being innocent isn’t helpful when you’re in a carnival-like this one. She’s romanced easily by Marco the Magnificent, played by Steve Golin. He produces a coin from behind her ear, and a flower for her to wear, and she is his. Hat-tip to Golin, who has mastered several neat magic tricks for this role. He’s also a fine singer and knows how to sell a song. One of the standout numbers of the night was his rousing “Sword, Rose, and Cape,” complete with swashbuckling sword fighting.
His assistant, The Incomparable Rosalie, is played with a brassy flair by Whitney Golin wearing lots of sparkles and sashaying about the stage as if she owned it. Her superb voice and excellent diction trip easily through the often-funny songs she is given, a standout being “Humming.” Golin’s interplay with both Marco and her erstwhile fiancé, Mr. Glass, is a treat as she snaps off pithy one-liners about the women making a play for her lover, “that asp-kissing Olga.”
Paul Berthalet’s assistant, Jacquot, is given an authentic French turn by the talented Jeremy Duncan. Jacquot is the glue between the two worlds we see at the Carnival. He sees the Carnival for what it is, “a hiding place for all the misfits of the world.” Jacquot has an innocence and hope like Lili does and is the one person who is kind and encouraging to her. He also has compassion for his boss, Paul, even as he carries the world-weariness like the rest of the Carnival people. Duncan is also a puppeteer and does a magnificent job bringing Horrible Harry the Walrus and Margarite to life. He made us laugh a lot.
As the Carnival’s owner and impresario, B.F. Schlegel, David Tinney is excellent. He has impeccable comedic timing as he moans, “I work, I try,” along with the showmanship needed to be a ringmaster. He doesn’t shy away from the money-grabbing aspects of this role either. Tinney is always a delight onstage, and this role is no exception.
A small, but hilarious role belongs to a veterinarian who is besotted by Rosalie, Dr. Glass. He is a buffoon, and Troy Murry has a high time bringing us this character. I also have to mention the work of Rachel Vines, who without a word made us all laugh as she reacted to Lili’s mistakes while being an assistant to Marco. Bella Ritter, a new young actress, makes the most of being the spoiled rotten daughter of the owner of the Carnival.
The chorus of roustabouts, clowns, Blue Bird dancers, and aerialists create the world of the circus for us. They break the fourth wall, inviting the audience to be part of the fun. These smaller roles were filled by engaged actors, singers, and dancers. They all captured the essence of being within a Carnival. I especially enjoyed the extra stunts provided by Truett Adams, who used to work with Ringling Brothers. She juggled, did rope tricks, and climbed high above the stage on the silks.
The live music provided by the orchestra was another highlight. They are a talented bunch. Most of us lingered to hear the final notes from this exceptional group of musicians under the leadership of John Schweikhard. Kudos to Patty Granville for having a live orchestra, and their placement of them behind the action, but still visible. Their abilities elevated this show into excellence. The sound for this show was solid, with Jeffry Roper making sure the levels on all the microphones were correct.
Hank Baldree’s lighting design captured the multiplicity of moods. Sometimes flashing with multiple colors during chorus numbers, other times filtered down to simple spotlights, the show was well-lit throughout. Cheryl Pellet’s props were spot on, from the puppets that play such a crucial role in this show to the enormous sword box and giant swords for a magician’s trick. The scene design by Teresa Clapper and Wendy Woode has that perfect “cheap road carnival” feel. It is spare but fills the needs perfectly, and a platform downstage helps bring the actors up high enough to be seen and to be close to the audience. Kerra Sims has found all the right costumes to convey the sense of both time and place. There are a lot of costumes in this show. From sparkly, sexy outfits for Rosalie to demure ones for Lili, formal wear for Schlegel and Marco, to simple but effective costumes for the roustabouts, her design is meticulous. Nick Leos’ choreography makes the most of the dancer’s abilities and the space. It’s always fun to see a kick line, and we get several in this show.
Director Patty Granville knows how to stage a musical. Her use of space, and the movements of the dancers (which, by the way, in the fun number “Sword, Rose, and Cape” mimicked the clapping/stomping rhythms that Mr. Shurr had demonstrated for me. How wonderful that the continuation of some of Champions’ choreography continued into this show!) the use of height and the actual aisles of the theatre itself were inspired. She pulls nuanced performances from her singers and dancers. There was not a single wrong note, either musically or acting-wise, that was struck on the opening night. The choice to sing to the audience, to give them things, was exactly perfect.
Earlier in my conversation with Mr. Shurr, he wondered “if this production would be able to distill such a big, complicated show into an intimate space.” Patty Granville and her team of designers, singers, dancers, and musicians have distilled it into a little gem. Carnival is not a well-known musical, and only one song, “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” is instantly recognizable to the average theatre lover. This wonderful all-in cast has created a magical if fraying at the edges, carnival atmosphere, wherein even the smallest roles with no speaking lines make the most of their time on stage. GTC’s “Carnival” is charming, heartfelt, and absolutely worth going to see. You might even get a piece of candy, or have a song sung straight to you. Please don’t miss this show.
CARNIVAL runs Sept 9-25th at the Granville Arts Center
Garland Civic Theatre Box office: 972.205.2790 or at www.GarlandArtsBoxOffice.com