Hanging by a string

The cast makes Lyric Stage's Carnival more than fair

Flinty-eyed realists--men and women to whom cant is a four-letter word--will tell you Broadway musicals are generally limp, lachrymose affairs long on surface sentiment and short on subtlety.

And, of course, they will be right.
Take Carnival, which opened at the Lyric Stage in Irving 35 years to the day after it premiered on Broadway. Based on the 1952 film Lili, featuring the then-gamine Leslie Caron, it concerns a poor orphan child who seeks employment and emotional succor with a carnival (not the best place to look for either).

Though a variety of appealing carny types kindly offer to screw her lights out, Lili settles her affections on the flashy, trashy conjurer "Marco the Magnificent." Meanwhile, Paul, a former dancer turned puppeteer who is hobbled by a war wound, worships her from afar. Unable to speak to Lili directly, he woos her through his puppets.

Now, where have we seen this plot before? A passionate but self-conscious chap with a physical defect and an artistic temperament falls in love with a woman who is wasting herself on a superficially attractive man. The protagonist expresses himself eloquently through another party, but the woman in question can't deduce he is the real author of the words that win her love.

Carnival is just Cyrano de Bergerac with strings.
Unfortunately, it lacks Cyrano's epic sweep, poetic diction, pathos, and panache. It does have a couple of catchy tunes, though--"Love Makes the World Go Round" being the most notable. This was a number composer-lyricist Bob Merrill came up with to approximate the signature song from the movie Lili, a tune called "Hi Lili, Hi Lo." As any Baby Boomer who has seen the flick will tell you, "Hi Lili, Hi Lo" can infest your brain like an earwig and be just as hard to get out. Ditto, "Love Makes the World Go Round."

The song helped make Carnival a solid hit, one in a string for writer Michael Stewart, who also penned the books for Bye, Bye Birdie and Hello, Dolly! Thin and sugary, Carnival rarely sees the light of production today.

This is not to say it's an unwatchable show. A few melodic songs and a little heart-tugging bathos can go a long way with a talented cast. And Lyric Stage's production of Carnival is rescued from the trash heap of treacle by three strong performances.

The first is turned in by Dara Whitehead as Lili, the ingenue's ingenue. Whitehead, a Red Raider, is roughly the size of a hobbit, but she wields a sweet and strong voice. As the poor and put-upon Lili, she can warble a bright number like "A Very Nice Man" with infectious cheeriness and disarming bonhomie.

She also can handle an operatically overtoned, semitragic aria like "I Hate Him" without backing down a bit from the vocal rigors imposed by the tune. Though her acting is naturalistic rather than deeply considered, Texas Tech can be proud of this alumna, who, when not performing, teaches music in the Lewisville ISD (a lucky break for the Fighting Farmers).

Also on the money is Rhea Anne Cook as Rosalie, Marco's fall girl. With his continual infidelities, Marco has turned Rosalie "from a woman to Sherlock Holmes." Cook, who has been doing some fine acting around the Metroplex since emigrating to the Republic of Texas from Chicago, doesn't play Rosalie as a sap, however. She's a tough broad hooked on a bad man who can belt out her feelings with the best of them. She gets to exercise her considerable vocal range on a couple of solo numbers, offering a husky, womanly contrast to Whitehead's more girlish voice. Without calling histrionic attention to herself, Cook's comic timing, stage presence, and overall professionalism stand out like silver among stainless-steel cutlery.

The show's most compelling performance, however, belongs to Paul Taylor as the brooding puppeteer, also named Paul. Carnival can use all the psychological shading it can get to counteract its general insipidity, and Taylor delivers what's needed. He accents Paul's churlish, tormented side without making the character melodramatic.

Taylor also emotes with admirable restraint when singing. Unlike many actors in musical theater, he is content to stand in one spot and sing, his hands at his side, using only vocal inflections and facial expressions to convey his mood. He also knows how to make an exit, quickly shuffling off stage so that his voice and persona seem to linger there without him. It's a textbook example of how less acting is generally more. Taylor also does a nice job with the voices of the puppets, which range from the Groucho-like quips of a fox to the nasal bleatings of an aging female aristocrat.

Lagging behind these performances a bit is Brian Larson as the sleazoid Marco. Larson is an appropriately attractive/repellent Lothario, but he lacks a singing voice and has to talk his way through his songs. John Robert Wright as the good-guy puppeteer Jacquot is called upon to show irrepressible enthusiasm, but spends most of the evening waving his arms like a man being attacked by midges in a swamp. The supporting cast members are not called upon to do much except stroll in and out, but they sound fine when they do sing together.

Desultorily directed by Cheryl Denson, Carnival drags in spots and could use some pruning and a little revisionist thinking. It might be interesting (and perhaps even more credible, and a damned sight more provocative) to have Paul played as a woman with a crush on Lili. Perhaps that way Lili's general obtuseness about what is going on with the puppets wouldn't seem so far-fetched. Or perhaps Lili could be a man, or even a man masquerading as a woman, which would be consistent with the theme of people needing masks to communicate with each other.

Of course, you could then say "Hi Lili, Hi Lo" to any future financial contributions the good people of Irving would be making to Lyric Stage, which would be a blow for those to whom the American Musical is catnip.

Carnival runs through April 27. Call 214-525-

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