Michael Arnold (center) and company
in Carnival!
(© Joan Marcus)
Michael Arnold (center) and company
in Carnival!
(© Joan Marcus)
In director/choreographer Robert Longbottom's revival of the musical Carnival!, now at the Kennedy Center, the potentially dreary -- not to mention creepy -- tale of a naïve French girl who joins a traveling circus becomes a colorful and vibrant tale of how enchantment can overcome despair.

Based on the 1953 film Lili, this 1961 Broadway hit by Michael Stewart and Bob Merrill has always had a sophisticated, often poignant score on its side. But you have to get into the supporting roles to find a likable character, and emotions are not engaged until late in the story, when a flood of pent-up sentiment is released.

The result is a challenge for any director; but Longbottom has found the key to success in his exploitation of the exhilarating illusions of circus life. The carnival folks escape their tattered lives in the bright and warm refuge under the canvas, and the audience is treated to eye-catching acrobatics, energetic dance, chill-inducing aerialist stunts, engaging magic tricks, and delightful puppets that project personality and generate laughter. The razzle-dazzle provides more than eye candy, however, as it is infused with a charm that the story itself often lacks.

Lili, played with wide-eyed gullibility by newcomer Ereni Sevasti, is a recently orphaned teenager who warily approaches a ragtag carnival in search of a family friend who she hopes will take care of her. But the friend has died and Lili is left to the whims of a womanizing magician, Marco the Magnificent, portrayed with oily arrogance by Sebastian La Cause. Meanwhile, the carnival's puppeteer Paul (Jim Stanek) is drawn to Lili, but he is a man consumed by bitterness caused by a war wound. What remains of his true, better self is hinted at to Lili only through his puppets (which are the marvelously expressive creations of Ed Christie.)

Lili soon transfers her allegiance from Marco to Paul, setting up a bizarre love triangle. Marco selfishly lusts for the girl, while trying to push away his longtime partner Rosalie (Natascia Diaz), and Paul alternates between caring for Lily and being abusive. All the while, Lili allows herself to be buffeted about between these two men, while also being victimized by carnival boss Schlegal, portrayed as a smooth rogue by the imposing Jonathan Lee Iverson.

The discomfort some may feel in watching Stewart's book -- which has been trimmed considerably for this two-hour intermissionless version -- is alleviated somewhat by the beauty of such moving ballads as "Mira," sung with a crystalline soprano by Sevasti, and "She's My Love," sung by Stanek with quiet passion as he emerges from his sullen stupor at the end.

Music director David Chase has a full orchestra to bring the score to life and it is particularly effective in the three songs performed by Sevasti and the Stanek-voiced puppets, "Yum Ticky Ticky Tum Tum," "We're Rich," and "Beautiful Candy." While we hear strains of the show's most famous song, "Love Makes the World Go Round" several times, it is oddly given a presentation broken up by dialogue and is never fully showcased.

Above the brightly colored world of rolling carnival midway set pieces and bigtop tents created by scenic designer Andrew Jackness is a grim, gray sky. The bleak backdrop is unchanging, reminding us that regardless of the glitz that entertains us, the lives of these characters are mostly empty.

In the lead role, Stanek gives us a Paul who has allowed anger to close his heart and smother his charm. Meanwhile, it's Diaz who truly lights up the stage as Rosalie. She shows expert comic sensibility yet reveals layers of nuance. Rosalie may be devious, but her love for the supercilious Marco turns out to be pure -- and her duet with La Cause, "Always, Always You," is lovely enough to transcend the tawdry elements of their relationship.

The other outstanding performance is given by Michael Arnold, whose sunniness as Jacquot pierces through the gloom. Moreover, his character's loyalty to Paul allows us to believe the sour puppeteer is worth our time. While Arnold isn't given a solo number, he ably leads the ensemble in the magnificently lavish "Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris," an extended sequence that shows there is indeed a heart to this circus, and which is one of the many joyful moments of this often-enchanting Carnival!