With a lovely, underappreciated score by Bob Merrill and a book by Michael Stewart, based on the Paul Gallico book that also inspired the MGM film Lili (screenplay by Helen Deutsch), Carnival is about an orphaned French waif who longs to find a place in a carnival because she really has nowhere else to go. The story has its dark aspects, to put it mildly; but in the film and in every decent production of the musical, they have been leavened by lots of color, excitement, and humor. Not so the Paper Mill version, which takes place on a mostly bare stage with the back wall painted solid black. Christopher Barreca is credited as the set designer, but it's hard to know what that means in this case. Also in line with Schmidt's (mis)conception of the piece, Donald Holder's lighting is stark and most of Michelle R. Phillips's costumes are ugly. (See photos.)
Even worse, Schmidt has chosen to exaggerate certain personality traits of the characters beyond all reason, with the emphasis on dysfunction. So Lili, who's supposed to be childlike and naïve, is mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed as played by Elena Shaddow; the puppeteer Paul, crippled and bitter but good at heart, is so thoroughly off-putting in Charlie Pollock's portrayal that it's impossible to imagine how Lili could ever fall in love with him; Marco the Magnificent is a smarmy villain, rather than a suave roué, as characterized by the usually terrific Paul Schoeffler; and so on. Schmidt, determined to bring the show's dark subtext to the surface from the outset, gives us an opening number ("Direct From Vienna") during which no one in the company cracks a smile, even though they're supposed to be enticing people to come to the carnival. And it's all downhill from there. Only the wonderful Jennifer Allen, speaking in a hilariously indeterminate European accent as Rosalie, manages to bring some humor to the proceedings.
As for the puppets -- more bad news! Rather than the adorable, cuddly, child-friendly creations they're supposed to be, Carrot-Top and Marguerite are here rendered as eerie, life-size figures visibly manipulated by onstage puppeteers dressed in black with hoods over their heads. (This may be in line with a certain tradition of puppetry but, I'm sorry, the puppet handlers look very creepy -- as if they were prisoners of war about to be beheaded). Renardo the fox is supposed to have an amusingly rakish French accent, something like that of Pepe le Pew in those Warner Brothers cartoons, but here he speaks in a British Cockney dialect for some strange reason. Only the walrus puppet Henry, voiced by Eric Michael Gillett (who plays Jacquot), is charming rather than frightening.
Such nonsense is all the more despicable given that Carnival is infrequently revived. It's one thing to offer a radical reinterpretation of Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, or some other show that's been staged countless times all over the country and the world, but productions of Carnival are rare. What can we look forward to at Paper Mill? A bold new staging of that old warhorse Coco? A wildly revisionist take on the repertory staple Prettybelle? I mean, really!
Speaking as one who was fortunate enough to have seen the beautiful 2002 Encores! presentation of Carnival, starring Anne Hathaway, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Douglas Sills, and Debbie Gravitte, I'm sorry for those of you who missed it and have not elsewhere attended a proper production of this show. What's now onstage at Paper Mill is occasionally intriguing but far more often infuriating, and certainly not Carnival as its creators conceived it.