BWW Review: CARNIVAL is a Dazzling Magical Delight

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CARNIVAL is a musical that originally appeared on Broadway in 1961, with a book by Michael Stewart and music and lyrics by Bob Merrill. You may better know Merrill as the writer of the lyrics for Funny Girl. Based on the 1953 MGM film Lili, the show is seldom produced; outside of the original production's National Tour only a handful of productions have been done professionally, and one of those was a staged concert version. The main reason is the difficulty of the music. I am pleased to report that not only does the Summer Stock Austin production handle the score beautifully, the entire production is a dazzling, magical delight.

Summer Stock Austin is a one of a kind non-profit educational program that started in Austin in 2005. The program allows high school and college students to experience what working in a professional stock company is like. They work as a traditional company; each member performs, designs, builds, and assists on all aspects of theatrical production. What makes Summer Stock Austin different is all participants do so free of charge and the college students are even paid a stipend. Led by a host of professionals with experience ranging from Austin to Broadway, students begin making invaluable connections as they embark on their professional careers and gain first hand knowledge of working in a professional setting. Summer Stock Austin is a joint program of the Long Center for the Performing Arts, in conjunction with Austin Playhouse and Zilker Theatre Productions.

The show begins with a lone figure, Jacquot (Keith Gruber), playing the big hit song from the show "Love Makes the World Go 'Round" on a concertina as the carnival is set up. Lili (Kate Brimmer), an orphan with the innocence of a child, comes to the carnival because of a job she was promised. Instead of a job, Grobert (Connor Bailey), the souvenir salesman, attempts to sexually assault her. Marco the Magnificent (Tyler Brown), a womanizing magician, enters as she escapes and performs a magic trick, which enchants her, and she becomes infatuated with him.

In another part of the carnival Paul (Connor Barr), a former dancer who was crippled from an injury, has become a bitter puppeteer. His act is uninteresting and not drawing customers. When he is fired by the carnival manager Schlegel (Joey Kelley); Jacquot, his assistant puppeteer, goes to smooth things over. Paul is unable to adjust to his new life and needs to find a new meaning for being. Lili happens by and Paul dismisses her. She tells Paul and Jacquot that she has come from a long way and longs for a wonderful life. When she spies Lili, Marco's longtime mistress & assistant Rosalie (Lynley Eilers) worries that Marco is trying to have yet another affair behind her back.

Marco offers Lili a job in his magic show but when she is unable to keep her enthusiasm under control, she ruins one of Marco's magic tricks during his show and is fired. A humiliated Lili attempts a suicidal jump from the acrobat's ladder, but is stopped by a redheaded puppet named Carrot Top. Lili meets the other puppets: Horrible Henry, Marguerite, and Reynardo the Fox and is invited to join the puppet act. Her addition to the act makes it a success, eventually earning a place in the center ring.

Director and Choreographer Scott Thompson has created sheer magic in this staging. The show has dazzling dance numbers and show stopper after show stopper. In addition to the choreography, there are stilt walkers, unicyclists, jugglers and aerial artists. This production is a sheer joy from start to finish and even with all the flash and dazzle remains touching and gentle... not an easy trick, but Thompson and company pull it off with panache.

Dustin L. Struhall delivers a big Broadway sound from the company and gets some remarkable vocal performances out of the leads. Teresa Carson's costumes are a wonderful mix of gaudy circus wear and Parisian country charm and her puppet creations are delightfully whimsical. Theada Bellenger's set is absolutely perfect as is the lighting by Scott Vandenberg.

The show has no shortage of show stopping musical numbers: "Direct From Vienna", "A Sword A Rose and a Cape", "Carnival Ballet" and "Cirque de Paris Ballet" are all astonishing in their scope and execution.

The show also has a marvelous cast and there isn't a weak link in the whole company. The leads are especially memorable. Tyler Brown is wonderfully smarmy as Marco the Magnificent and wows in his big number "A Sword A Rose and a Cape". Kate Brimmer is utterly charming as Lili and has a voice that interprets the show's most difficult numbers with a lyrical beauty. Her renditions of "Mira" and "Love Makes the World Go Round" are achingly beautiful. Connor Barr is both touching and heartbreaking as Paul and his renditions of "I've Got To Find a Reason" and "Her Face" soar. Lynley Eilers is riotously funny as Rosalie and her song "Humming" is a comedic gem. Keith Gruber is a sweet and gentle Jacquot and has a show stopping dance routine in "Cirque de Paris Ballet".

There are only a few performances left of CARNIVAL and you should go see this magical and dazzlingly executed production... and be sure to take some Kleenex, as this show will touch your heart.

CARNIVAL - Book by Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics by Bob Merrill

Running time: Approximately Two Hour and a Half hours plus one intermission

CARNIVAL, produced by Summer Stock Austin, in the Rollins Studio at The Long Center (701 West Riverside Drive, Austin, TX 78704). Tickets are now on sale and start at $25, with a special $17 ticket for students. For more information: www.TheLongCenter.org or call (512) 474-LONG (5664) for ticket information. Tickets are also available at the Long Center's 3M Box Office located at 701 West Riverside Drive at South First Street.



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From This Author Frank Benge