This show belongs to the puppets.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, because it always has. I was in my college production of Carnival, woefully miscast as the seductive Marco the Magnificent. (Me as Marco? Ha!) We had a handsome production and a fine cast, including future soap star Jeff Trachta in the male lead but the humans never had a chance. From the moment those four adorable puppets showed up near the end of Act One, the audience belonged to them.
Yes, the story is charming and I don't mean that as an offhanded compliment. This kind of genuine charm is as magical as it is rare. Based on MGM's Lili, it tells of an orphaned girl who joins the slightly seedy Cirque de Paris. Pursued by a philandering magician, she winds up as part of a puppet show, falling in love with the puppets and the crippled puppeteer who hides behind them. And Bob Merrill's underrated score offers a torrent of gorgeous melodies. Some of his lyrics can be distracting ("like a lucky bird landed on my head"???), but "Mira," "Her Face" and "Love Makes the World Go 'Round" are classic Broadway.
The Encores concert casting certainly left nothing to chance. Brian Stokes Mitchell looked and sounded better than ever as Paul, the once famous dancer forced into puppetry by a wartime injury. Every one of his solos won extended cheers, each sung with the dramatic nuance that has made him a bona fide Broadway star. The luscious Anne Hathaway, who starred with Julie Andrews in Disney's The Princess Diaries, made a disarming NY stage debut as Lili. She made the girl's almost impossible na´vetÚ believable, and handled the sometimes devilish vocal pyrotechnics with apparent ease. Hathaway also made the perfect foil for the four puppets, shrewdly resisting any temptation to compete with them. I hope we get her back on Broadway very soon.
Designed by Jim Henson's NY Muppet Workshop, Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, Renardo and Marguerite pulled every well-tuned heartstring. At one point, they even spoofed their human co-stars by whipping out puppet-sized scripts. The sophisticated (and overwhelmingly adult) Encores audience melted like butter in the sun, responding to these animated carpets with oohs, aahs, laughs and tears. And I was just as helplessly enchanted as everyone else. This production gave the puppets the final star bow long overdue recognition of their importance.
Douglas Sills, who apparently has not skipped any desserts since his run in Scarlet Pimpernel, made a rakish Marco though even his best efforts could not make much of that thankless role. Debbie Gravitte scored yet another triumph as Marco's long suffering assistant Rosalie, singing the witty "Humming" with an able assist from David Margulies as the equally long suffering circus owner. David Costabile was an endearing Jacquot, and led the solid ensemble in a showstopping rendition of "Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris" staged with style by Kathleen Marshall. As always, Rob Fisher and the Coffee Club Orchestra gave everything a glorious big-time Broadway sound, making the most of the incomparable original Philip J. Lang orchestrations.
As I filed down from the gallery (a loooong trip at City Center!), I overheard people rave about the leads and the score. But the one thing everyone kept going on about was how charming the puppets were, how you couldn't help but fall in love with them, how funny they were . . .
Even in a first-class production, Carnival belongs to the puppets. And oh, how I love it!
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