Anne Hathaway and friends in Carnival(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Anne Hathaway and friends in Carnival
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
According to the people who codify these things--or, at least, the people who codified these things in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s--it's essential at the beginning of every musical that the principal character sings an "I want" song. He or she tells the audience what's motivating him or her, and the subsequent pursuit of that need is meant to pull the audience eagerly through the rest of the action. So that no one mistakes what's afoot, most of these songs include, quite literally, the words "I want."

Carnival, which kicks off this year's City Center Encores! series with attractively muted flair, has two "I want" songs. They're sung by Paul Berthalet (Brian Stokes Mitchell), a dancer whose World War II injury has forced him to become a puppeteer, and Lili Daurier (Anne Hathaway in an enchanting debut), a wistful, teenage orphan. What he wants, now that he can never dance again, is a reason to live; what she wants, now that her father has died and she has left home, is to find another place where everybody knows her name.

That Paul's and Lili's simple desires will ultimately prove to be complementary isn't ever in doubt--especially not to viewers who saw the movie Lili, which only had one song in it, "Hi Lili, Hi Lo" by Bronislau Kaper and Helen Deutsch. Nor is there much suspense wrapped up in whether Marco the Magnificent (Douglas Sills), the self-impressed magician and womanizer, will remain with his fuming assistant, The Incomparable Rosalie (Debbie Gravitte). This loud-mouthed and lively pair supply the secondary love story that was also a prerequisite of just about every musical written during the middle third of the 20th century.

So Carnival is a show crafted according to the prevailing formula of its time, and that's both its glory and shame. It ran for 719 performances after opening on April 13, 1961, because book writer Michael Stewart, songwriter Bob Merrill and, perhaps especially, director Gower Champion handled the formula so skillfully. Champion was among those who changed the musical from a songwriters' and performers' medium into a director-choreographers' medium, and Carnival was a vivacious example of his handiwork. It didn't run longer because it followed but didn't transcend the prevailing formula. In other words, it achieved a solid berth in the reputable second rank of musicals from the not-so-distant past. The show offers the kind of ephemeral delights that are the theatrical equivalent of the balloons Lili holds in the logo that touted the original production and is reproduced on the Playbill now. As Lili comes to love Paul's puppets (supplied by the Jim Henson Company) but also comes to hate the embittered and caustic man behind them, and as Rosalie toys with leaving Marco for a Zurich veterinarian, the forces behind Carnival come up with enough clever ideas, persuasive songs, and amusing lines to divert the most hard-hearted patron.

Wendy Wasserstein did the concert adaptation, and maybe she's the one who thought up several cute jokes about the constant script-carrying that's required for the Encores! series to maintain the illusion that it deals in concert readings rather than full productions. Ha! Like Walter Bobbie's treatment of Chicago and many other Encores! productions, this one looks as if it could be moved to Broadway without too much adjustment or enhancement. Scenic consultant John Lee Beatty has placed a ring of lights over the stage and hung enough strings of carnival bulbs and various gauzy curtains to conjure B. F. Schlegel's down-on-its-luck traveling enterprise, while Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are gaudily provocative when necessary and simple when that's what's called for (the straw hat Lili wears is certainly shabby enough). And not much more would be needed from lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski and sound designer Scott Lehrer to make this a Broadway show.

Brian Stokes Mitchelland Carrot-Top in Carnival(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Brian Stokes Mitchell
and Carrot-Top in Carnival
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
The cast is raring to go. Relying on his script more than his colleagues, Brian Stokes Mitchell makes the longing Bob Merrill's songs almost palpable. Mitchell's voice is always strong and dramatic, but here it also incorporates Paul's anguish. In particular, the athletic actor turns the second act song "Her Face" into an aria of great reverberation. Douglas Sills, who seems always to enjoy tweaking his matinee-idol good looks, is both grand and grandiose in his numbers. On opening night, he and Debbie Gravitte had so much fun doing "Always, Always You"--where she's in a box and he's ostensibly running swords through her--that he had to stop, ad lib cleverly and resume.

Gravitte is a mistress of theater song and, as such, effortlessly gets every value in the material she's been handed. The comic number "Humming" isn't really a laff riot, but it seems to be when she tackles it. She is abetted on this one by David Margulies, a theater fixture who looks here like a fugitive from a Toulouse-Lautrec poster; he makes the circus owner-operator Schlegel an adorable ham. David Costabile as Paul's assistant, Jacquot, doesn't get the chance to steal the proceedings as he did in Ian Marshall Fisher's recent concert version of Let's Face It, but his squeeze-box playing of "Love Makes the World Go Round" and his leading of the production number "Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris" are potent evidence that he deserves to top-line a tuner very soon.

Of course, Carnival isn't much if Lili doesn't have the right winsome and wistful qualities. She has' em here. Anne Hathaway--who's just finished her freshman year at Vassar or so the program tells us--is surpassingly lovely. In fact, with her porcelain doll features and long dark hair, she's so lovely that when Lili is described in the script as "plain," the remark sounds kinda stupid. Since this is Hathaway's first time on a New York City stage, the uncertainty she instills in Lili may also be partly that of the actress. But it doesn't matter; in this role, whatever she's doing works. Her soprano voice has an Ella Loganesque tremolo in it and that goes a long way towards communicating the heartbreak in "Mira," Lili's song about the town she's left behind. That fragility holds even in some of the catchy novelty ditties that Merrill wrote for Lili to sing with the puppets. Speaking of those puppets: When they first catch the troubled Lili's attention, the awe and adoration Hathaway conveys is everything the show calls for. If Carnival has one thoroughly magical sequence, this is it. (No wonder Schlegel invites Lili and friends back into the center ring.)

As usual, Rob Fisher and The Coffee Club Orchestra are proficient--although Fisher figures in the action of Carnival less than he usually does in Encores! shows, and that's a slight disappointment for regular audience members. Kathleen Marshall, who's marshaled many of these productions over the past few years, keeps things flowing tidily. Her choreography isn't as inventive as it could be, but this is a minor lapse; to her credit, she's pulled together a series entry that does the original purveyors proud. Whether or not it will move to a larger arena as Chicago did, and as Wonderful Town is still rumored to do, is beside the point. At City Center, Carnival is fun for children of all ages.