Puppetry Journal – Fall 2010 Volume 62, No. 1
Complimentary Online Expanded Article
The Goodspeed Opera Production
“Carnival” is not a show that “works by itself”.
Some shows do. It is pretty hard to “kill” shows like “Arsenic and Old Lace”, “My Fair Lady”, “The Odd Couple”, and so on. In shows like these, the books and scores are so strong, funny, and well known, that they almost “play themselves”.
This is not the case with “Carnival”.
It has often been considered a flawed show, and numerous writers have been brought in to “fix” it for recent revivals. Francine Pascal, who is sister of the late Michael Stewart, who wrote the original Broadway script, did the many script revisions used in this production.
One frequent misconception of this show is that it is a light, fluffy family musical full of puppets, magic and circus acts. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
While it does contain the puppets, magic and circus acts, it is also contains a lot of dark and brooding scenes and musical numbers depicting the characters’ rage, jealousy, love, and even descent into mental breakdown.
It is a show that depends upon subtle character shadings, and requires high acting, directing and vocal skills. It requires a director with a strong point of view, and a very talented ensemble to make it work.
These vital ingredients were present in this wonderful Goodspeed Opera revival.
In the end, the success or failure of a production must lie with the director. Goodspeed’s director, Darko Tresnjak, has created a production with “an opinion” that is both consistent and also serves the material well. The production has a definite artistic point of view. One might not agree with each choice, but has to respect that an artistic decision was made and carried out consistently throughout the show.
For those of you not familiar with either the film “Lili”, or the musical
”Carnival”, here is a brief plot synopsis of the musical:
B.F. Schlegel’s somewhat rundown carnival is touring around France after the Second World War. The magician “Marco the Magnificent” and his assistant, “The Incomparable Rosalie” are the headliners.
Also in the show, somewhere in the midway, are Paul Berthalet and his assistant, Jacquot. Paul was a dancing star before the war, and suffered a leg injury that ended his dancing career. He is now a sideshow puppeteer. His main “alter ego” puppet character is Carrot Top, (a leprechaun in the two stories and the film, and usually portrayed as a clown or little boy in the show) The other puppet characters we meet are Horrible Henry, a loveable walrus, Marguerite, a diva of questionable talent, and Reynardo the Fox, a slick playboy type.
These are the characters in the musical. In the film and novella, Horrible Henry is Golo the Giant, and is based on Tillstrom’s Ollie. Carrot Top would then be derived from Kukla. Stewart’s lines indicate that his Marguerite is based on Tillstrom’s Madame Oglepuss. (In the novella and original story Marguerite has different names.)
Marguerite might also be the way that Paul sees Rosalie. This would explain why the puppets for this character in the film and original Broadway Musical are more “showgirl” than “old opera diva”. Reynardo the Fox has no equivalent with The Kuklapolitans, and is probably the way that Paul sees Marco the Magnificent.
Lili walks into this world. She is around 16, very naïve and innocent, and is recently orphaned. She has left her small town and is seeking employment with a friend of her father’s, who used to work in the carnival.
She is immediately infatuated with Marco The Magnificent, the seductive magician, who promises her a job in his act in the show. Lili, totally innocent and inexperienced, winds up ruining Marco and Rosalie’s performance, and is fired from the carnival.
Depressed and confused, she attempts suicide, and is saved by the puppet Carrot Top, who brings her down from the ladder to the “leap for life”.
It is immediately apparent that there is something very magical about Lili talking to the puppets. Paul recognizes this and builds a new act around her. What Paul does not immediately recognize is how much he has fallen in love with her.
“Lili and Friends” becomes an immediate sensation, and their act develops before our eyes with progressively larger stages and more elaborate costumes. It is moved from the midway into the main stage.
In the meantime, the relationship between Paul and Lili becomes ugly as Paul is unable to express any of his feelings except through his puppets. He is also insanely jealous of Lili’s infatuation with Marco.
Rosalie makes good on her threats and leaves Marco to marry Dr. Wilhelm Glass, a secret admirer of hers from Zurich. Marco then tries to persuade Lili to leave Paul and the puppets, and become his new magic assistant.
Paul is infuriated. Many “plot gears” start to grind. At the very end, the carnival moves on with Marco, now re-united with Rosalie, and without Lili and Paul. In the last pivotal scene, Carrot Top appears again and tries to persuade Lili to take him and the other puppets with her. Finally Lili “realizes” that it was always Paul talking for the puppets. In an instant, the two realize their love for each other, embrace, and “walk off into the sunset.”
Starting with this last pivotal scene is an excellent way to analyze a production of “Carnival”. It is a very treacherous moment. If the show “works”, then it seems quite natural and even inevitable. In many productions, however, the ending seems to “come out of nowhere”, and in the worst case, can even come off comically. The ending, like in all good plays, movies, and books, must be built into the whole piece starting at the very beginning.
In the film, Lili’s realization that the puppets “are” Paul is handled through an elaborate and very stylized dream ballet. It would be interesting to see how this concept would work in the musical if the ballet were re-created on the stage.
In this show, the relationship between Lili and Paul must be clear from the first time they lay eyes on each other, or else the dénouement at the end probably will not work.
This is why it is so important for the audience to always feel Paul’s presence behind the puppets.
There have been productions where more than two puppeteers are clearly operating the puppets, and those operators are not the actors playing Paul and Jacquot.
Even when Paul gets to hold one of the puppets at the end of the last scene, there is simply no connection there. In order for this scene to work, the puppets must be an integral part of Paul.
Another common pitfall is for the Paul character to be consistently dark and angry. When played like this, there is no chance that the audience would ever believe he could suddenly “turn on a dime” and be emotionally gentle with Lili. Of course, the Lili character must also be “right” for this last scene to work.
It’s a tough role to cast. The actress must have the vocal ability to sing a rather operatic part, and yet come off looking like a 16-year-old very naïve waif, who believes that the puppets she is talking to are real people. Perhaps she has some reality issues.
In this revised production, in the last scene, Lili actually says to Paul “I always knew it was you (behind the puppets).” This is not in the original script, and is a huge improvement on it. We no longer think of Lili as a somewhat mentally deficient adolescent who does not realize that puppets need to be worked by people.
The Goodspeed production’s Lili was Lauren Worsham. Ms. Worsham, who happily looked the right age to do this role, also sang the part beautifully. She started out as perhaps an overenthusiastic child, but effectively finished the show transformed into a wiser young woman.
Adam Monley as Paul succeeded in showing some of the softer sides of the character. His character was in the right direction, but just not taken far enough.
Upon first viewing this production, the ending did not work at all.
The second time, I noticed that all of the love that Paul feels for Lili was indeed on the stage from the beginning, but just not played strongly enough.
Mr. Monley sang well, and did emotionally touch the audience. He also worked and voiced the puppets splendidly within the context of this production. There was excellent use of the puppets being able to appear at playboard level, and also above the puppet booth in the first act. This allowed Carrot Top to be on a direct line of focus with Lili when she was on the “leap of life” ladder, which immediately established a strong link between them.
Mike McGowan, the original Marco, exuded a raw sexuality and seemed to have a Svengali-like grip on Lili. It really gave a primal edge to their relationship and the whole show. David Engel, his replacement, was more the smooth and slick seducer (and was actually the better magician). In the end, he was just too nice. The chemistry was just not there.
Michelle Blakely as Rosalie was, like the rest of the production, a very deliberate choice. She is a superb musical comedienne, somewhat reminiscent of young Gwen Verdon, but lacked the fleshly glamour and sex appeal that the role requires.
Michael Kostroff, was replacement for Schlegel, the sleazy carnival producer (perhaps there is some David Merrick in this character). He was appropriately fun and smarmy, and made the most out of this smaller role. Some of this character’s lines had also been cut from this production, making this task even more difficult.
There have been productions where the magic required in the show is so “cutting edge” that the audience is more interested in how the tricks are done than the story on the stage. The choice of magic in this show, credited to Mark Kalin, is wonderful. It is all “of the period”, and looks authentic. There is a marvelous escape illusion worked into the plot of the “Magic, Magic” number in the first act that is quite exciting. The musical number “It was Always You” is written to be sung by Marco and Rosalie as they are performing a sword box illusion. In this show, the box was perfect, and just magical enough without “succeeding too well”.
Hats off to Peggy Hickey, the choreographer, and the ensemble, which, though small in number, created the feeling of a full-size circus on this tiny stage (28’ wide, 20’ deep, and 16’ high, with 8’ wings on each side). The aerialists, choreographed by Joshua Dean, in particular were outstanding.
Compliments also to the orchestrations by Dan DeLange, the music direction by Michael O’Flaherty, and his assistant, F. Wade Russo, and the original dance arrangements by the late Peter Howard (uncredited in the program). Together, they made this reduced pit of 7 “real” players, blended with synthesized instrumentation sound like a full Broadway pit orchestra in that theatre.
And now to the puppets:
In this musical it is almost expected that the puppets “walk away with the show”.
Indeed, many consider Michael Stewart’s original script to contain the funniest scenes ever written for puppets. A good 20% of those lines were deleted from the original script for this revised version. This alone would indicate the artistic choice of taking some of the emphasis off of the puppets.
In short; the puppets do not “walk away with the show” in this revival, and in the end, this approach served this production well. The puppets are always an integral part of this show, and are considered as important as characters as the lead actors. In this Goodspeed production the puppets are integral to the show, and are a well-balanced element along with the magic, acrobatics, and trapeze work.
Seeing this version of “Carnival” points out that perhaps one of the problems of the show is that the puppets often succeed too well. By that I mean that when the puppetry is technically good and convincing that the audience, like Lili, never associates Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, Reynardo, and Marguerite with Paul and Jacquot.
As mentioned before, there have been some productions where the actors playing Paul and Jacquot never really touch the puppets, and that is a big mistake. Usually the two actors playing the roles have to hold the puppets in their hands while they were taking their bows otherwise no one would believe that they were actually bringing the puppets to life. Once again: “succeeding too well”.
Robert Smythe, who many of you know as the founder of Mum Puppettheatre, designed and staged the puppet scenes. Mr. Smythe has had an association with Darko Tresnjak, the director, for over 20 years. Mr. Tresnjak performed with Mum Puppettheatre in a month-long tour of Japan in 1990, and at The National Puppet Festival in Tallequah. It is no surprise that they should be again collaborating on “Carnival”.
Regarding the types of puppets in “Carnival”:
The source, again, is Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Kukla is a conventional hand puppet, with and no mechanical features. Ollie, while worked by hand, is often called a “mouth puppet”, where the thumb goes into the lower jaw, and the other four fingers go into the upper jaw. Carol Fijan, always felt that the Ollie puppet was descended from the crocodile puppet in the English Punch and Judy show.
In the 1953 MGM film “Lili” the four characters are all hand puppets, with cast heads and mechanical features. This was a good choice for the close-up medium of film. They are beautifully sculpted and have moving mouths, eyebrows, eyelids AND eyes.
In the original 1961 Broadway production of “Carnival” Tom Tichenor designed simple cloth puppets, with no moving parts, that were more similar to the Kuklapolitans. Carrot Top and Marguerite were hand puppets like Kukla, and the two animals, Horrible Henry the Walrus, and Reynardo the Fox were “mouth” puppets, like Ollie.
There have seen productions of “Carnival” also done with four mouth puppets, four ventriloquial figures, and with rod puppets combined with life-sized mannequins.
For this Goodspeed revival Robert Smythe had chosen to go in the exactly the opposite direction at Goodspeed, and make all four puppets as hand puppets, with not a moving mouth in sight!
There are a number of factors to be considered when creating the puppets for this show. After fitting into the director’s artistic concept, there are also matters of budget, and manpower, as well as the physical size of the stage and theatre. The important measurement here is how far away the furthest audience member is from the stage.
Another consideration is “size vs. weight”. If the puppets are too heavy, then the actors will have a hard time with them. If the puppets are too small, then the whole audience will not be able to see them.
Tom Tichenor got it right the first time: his original puppets were an average of 25” tall, made completely of cloth and stuffing, and had very simple design features that could be seen from a great distance. The show opened at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway, which has a seating capacity of 1435 seats, and a pretty standard Broadway theatre layout.
“Who is working the puppets?”
Very often Paul and Jacquot, as depicted in the movie, simply “split” the puppet characters. According to the script, Paul has to work Carrot Top and Horrible Henry in the last scene. Marguerite and Reynardo are therefore often assigned to the actor playing Jacquot. Both actors then have to master both hand puppet and mouth puppet technique.
There is a notation in the original script, at the end of the first act, that “Jacqout has entered during Lili’s song. He slips behind the packing crates in order to help Paul with the puppets”. This means that, in the original Broadway show, Paul was doing all four puppets until the very end of the scene, where the four puppets needed to appear together.
It seems impossible. Robert Smythe wrote that Marge Champion, (Gower Champion’s widow) told him the same thing. That, however, according to Jerry Orbach, was how the show was originally done. And indeed, Adam Monley, who plays Paul in the Goodspeed Production, also does all of the puppetry in the first act, and does it well.
Jacquot never appears at the end of scene to help him. Taking Jacquot out of the end of this scene is perhaps the only cut made to the original script that is indeed missed.
This was a real advantage of Robert Smythe’s choice of using small hand puppets only. Paul merely slips his hands out of two of the puppets while Lili is holding them at the end of scene, and comes back with the other two so that all four are now on the stage together. If the audience was not supposed to notice this device, then it seemed obvious, and if the audience was, then it seemed unnatural.
If the choice was intentional in order to show a more “informed” relationship between Lili and the puppets, then this was perhaps the wrong place to make that statement, as Lili is supposed to be near a nervous breakdown and suicidal at that moment in the show.
The puppets at Goodspeed were also staged with very minimal movement. This was infinitely better than having excessive and often meaningless manipulation. It also focused the attention more on Paul, and made us more aware of him behind the puppet stage. These were puppets that Paul, an injured dancer, could have made, and that Paul was clearly working and speaking through. In that sense, they did not have “lives of their own”, which served this production very well.
However, unless one noticed Jacquot slipping behind the puppet stage at the beginning of the second act, one never got the feeling that Jacquot was connected to the puppetry at all. He is always around Paul and the puppets, but the feeling that he was actually behind the stage assisting Paul was never there.
At the very end of the show, when Paul is again alone, and behind the puppet stage working Carrot Top (Henry was cut from this scene in this revised script), we see a slight shadow of him behind the scrim curtain.
This is another case where this was going in the right direction, but could have been taken a lot further. This might be a brilliant way to show Paul and Jacquot backstage, as they are shown in the film: just light the scrim from behind at opportune moments.
It was really a treat to be able to e-mail Robert Smythe and ask him specific questions about the choices that were made in the show. He also agreed to write a companion article for this Journal.
Asked why he had chosen to do the four puppets as hand puppets, with no mouth puppets, Robert Smythe wrote:
“As far as the choice to make them all hand puppets: the show is set fairly close to the end of WWII and in France. Paul, the crippled dancer turned unwilling puppeteer, would be drawing on his knowledge of pre-war French puppetry (similar, perhaps, to the Petit Guignol of Lyon) as well as the tradition in the circus/carnival of having a trunk of puppets hanging around that would be used by performers who could no longer perform their specialities (crippled acrobats or older performers). In other words, I don't think we'd be seeing innovation (like mouth puppets) from Paul.”
While I liked what was done with the four hand puppets, I am not really sure if I agree with the reasoning behind it. I suspect that relatives of the Punch and Judy Crocodile had emigrated to France well before 1948.
Smythe’s Carrot Top and Reynardo worked completely. Their sensitively sculpted faces, voices, characters and movements worked perfectly in the show.
Horrible Henry usually comes off as everyone’s favorite character. He was appropriately goofy, affectionate and cuddly here. It was sometimes difficult to see all of Horrible Henry. His “long, white, gleaming tooosks” were not prominent enough to be properly noticed. However, the phallic symbolism of Henry’s tusks, as well as Reynardo’s tail have never been more evident than in this production.
Horrible Henry was also a dark gray color, so that one could not really make out any arm gestures that he was doing with his flippers. It was also often difficult to see his dark eyes against his dark gray fur.
The Marguerite character in this show was less successful. She was neither the sexy Rosalie, nor the frumpy Madame Oglepuss. Asked about her character, Robert Smyhe replied:
“Marguerite's character is written as the kind of classic '30s wife done wrong in all of those backstage musicals. The performance/attitude/character is all Adam Monley's invention: he had already found the voice before he started working with the puppet.” She actually came across more like Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard”, which is who she looked like in the “Hollywood” interpretation of the song “The Rich”. Again – An artistic choice was made, and it was carried through consistently and well. One may simply not have agreed with the choice.
Finally, this is not a “Carnival” for Broadway traditionalists. There have been numerous changes to the original script, and interpretation of the material.
Many of the cuts from the original book have already been mentioned, and here are some of the other major changes made in this revised script:
There was an entire number for the aerialists that seemed added, just before Marco the Magician’s act. I have never seen this done in a production of “Carnival”. The conductor, however, said that the music was from the original show, so it may well have been done then.
On first viewing, it was not clear if this was merely a rehearsal, warm-up, or whether it was the beginning of the actual circus show. Adding an introduction from Schlegel, the ringmaster, would have clarified this.
The Suspended Cirque Company from New York was imported into the show with great success. The limited 16’ height of the stage however took away any element of danger that is usually a part of this type of performing.
Paul’s song to the Carrot Top puppet, “Everybody Likes You” in this revised version, was moved out of the beginning of the first act, and very effectively made the closing of the first act. It works so well there, any future production of “Carnival” will most likely borrow this idea.
The entire character of Dr. Glass is cut from this revision of the script. He is Rosalie’s secret and rich admirer in the original show. There is an entire scene in the original script with Dr. Glass, Rosalie, and Marco. Dr. Glass, in this version, is actually a fictional invention of Rosalie’s, created to make Marco Jealous.
All of the patter about specific props is cut out of “Magic, Magic” and Lily becomes the “shill” or “plant” from the audience, rather than one of the sign holders.
Marco makes Lili’s watch vanish, which, if you know the show, is pretty traumatic. The watch is a major motif earlier in the show, and in the original script Carrot Top even warns Lili about Reynardo; “Watch out Lili, or he’ll steal your watch”. (This small addition emphasizes the relationship between Reynardo and Marco.)
As mentioned before, about 20% of the lines in the original script that belonged to the puppets have been cut out of this revision. There are no lead-in lines to “Love Makes The World Go ‘Round”. An entire puppet scene is cut out in the second act between “We’re Rich” and “Beautiful Candy” and Horrible Henry is completely cut out of the end of the show.
“Beautiful Candy” really becomes Lili’s number in this production. As with “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round”, there is no lead-in; she just breaks into it. More importantly she stays in center stage for the entire number with the puppets, rather than disappearing while the dance breaks are going on.
Some other non-traditional interpretive choices were also not truly changes to the script. One was the staging of “We’re Rich” in 1940s Beverly Hills, CA. Then, in the “Beautiful Candy” number, Marguerite makes a grand entrance in a Carmen Miranda-like fruit turban. Another was the staging of the “Cirque du Paris” number as a formally attired, black and white “follies” type ballet. As with this entire production; there was consistent artistic execution of every choice. One either agreed with that artistic choice or not.
As mentioned earlier, in this revision of the script, Lili actually says to Paul “I always knew it was you (behind the puppets). This is very important addition to the original script, and greatly changes the way that the Lili character can be interpreted.
Finally, this production adds the entire cast singing a splendid a capella arrangement of the hit tune from the show, “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round”, after the curtain call.
This is a very treacherous choice. The first time I saw the show, it worked splendidly, reprising all of the wonderful emotions that the show had created, and bringing the audience to their feet.
The second time I saw this production, the sudden change to the soft singing completely stopped the applause and broke the enthusiasm of the audience, which had started to stand. It felt completely wrong. These are probably the two scenarios that such a choice might create.
All in all, this was a top-drawer regional production of the show, and is probably the best-balanced production of “Carnival” that I can remember seeing. Can a Broadway revival be far away?
Larry Engler has designed, supervised, and sometimes operated the puppets for “Carnival” for many productions; (in chronological order):
NY Equity Library Theatre (1977), Hofstra Univeristy (1982), North Shore Music Theatre (1996), NY Roundabout Theatre (1998), Drama League Tribute to Jerry Orbach (2003),
Rocky Hill Theatre (2007), Springfield JCC (2008).
More information at: www.PokoPuppets.com