Seventeen to a dressing room might sound like a building-code violation, but Ed Christie is not about to complain. After all, the 16 performers sharing space with him backstage for the Kennedy Center's revival of "Carnival!" have to be the most agreeable roommates a theater person could hope for.
Slack-jawed, their faces frozen with wonder, they are paragons of patience and discipline. No sneaking out for a smoke for this gang. Of course, these cast members depend entirely on Christie, who sews the buttons on their costumes, gives them their cues, controls their every gesture.
Now, as they make their debuts as the circus puppets in the $4 million production that began performances in the Eisenhower Theater on Saturday, Christie -- a longtime designer in the workshops of Jim Henson -- can say without fear of contradiction that it is he who "made" them.
The puppets of "Carnival!," the 1961 Broadway musical with a score by Bob Merrill and a book by Michael Stewart, are as integral to the show as giraffes on stilts and elephants of many moving parts are to "The Lion King." The story of "Carnival!" -- which is not to be confused with "Carousel," the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical -- is told mostly through the human characters who populate the midway. These include the show's central figure, a taciturn puppeteer named Paul.
Although this sweetly melodic musical ran for 719 performances on Broadway (with Jerry Orbach as Paul) and includes classic songs such as "Love Makes the World Go 'Round" and lilting numbers like "Yes, My Heart," it's rarely revived. A major narrative stumbling block is the character of Lili, a young naif who beguiles Paul but is so impossibly innocent that she believes the puppets are real.
The director of the Kennedy Center revival, Robert Longbottom, has done major tinkering to the script, in collaboration with Stewart's surviving sister, Francine Pascal. Yet the new production owes its existence largely to the devotion of the Kennedy Center's president, Michael M. Kaiser, to the musical, in which he appeared once upon a time, in an amateur production in Massachusetts.
The idea, Kaiser says, is to make the piece as vibrant in 2007 as audiences might have felt about it in 1961. "That's why we go and find the best puppetmaker we can," he says. Although the story's emotional core is Paul's restorative love for Lili, the puppets express something about the puppeteer, too. (Jim Stanek and Ereni Sevasti play Paul and Lili.) As the carnival's financial fortunes improve, in fact, so do the physical conditions of the puppets in Paul's act: Carrot Top, a boy; the diva Marguerite; Renardo the Fox; and Horrible Henry, a walrus.
"Each has their own trajectory, and they are extensions of Paul," Longbottom says. His vision of this streamlined "Carnival!" -- it now runs without intermission -- included notions of how these puppets contribute to the musical's Old World setting. "I wanted something," he says, "that looked like old European dolls."
Christie proved a natural choice to design and build the puppets. Not only had he spent 25 years with Henson's company -- working on high-profile programs such as "Sesame Street" -- but six years ago he also supervised the puppet design for a concert version of "Carnival!" at City Center in New York.
Now running a consulting business from his home in Truro, Mass., Christie, 50, continues to act as a designer for foreign incarnations of "Sesame Street," including an installment in India, where a seven-foot-tall lion is used in place of Big Bird.
The puppets for the City Center production, in which Brian Stokes Mitchell portrayed Paul and Anne Hathaway was Lili, were made in the Manhattan workshop of Henson and, not surprisingly, were Muppetlike in appearance. Now, though, Christie had to approach these creatures he'd come to know so well in a fresh way. And this time the task would be more formidable, because Longbottom wanted a new set of puppets for each of their scenes -- in other words, four versions of each character, for a total of 16.
"I've put in eight to 10 hours a day, almost every day since June. I didn't see my friends, I didn't see my family," Christie is saying, a bit wearily, in the dressing room he shares with his creations a few feet from the Eisenhower stage. He has been given this choice space -- occupied most recently by Kathleen Turner during her run in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" -- because the proximity allows him to get puppets on- and offstage quickly. In addition to serving as one of the unseen puppeteers, he also has trained Stanek and others in the cast to manipulate the puppets.
Christie, who studied sculpture in college, offered his services to Longbottom and the Kennedy Center in part because of his knowledge of the piece, but also because he felt the need to preserve a tradition. "It's a dying art," he says.
Computer animation has rendered obsolete a lot of what puppetmakers do. And when puppets are employed in the theater these days, it's often with a bit of malice: Witness the popularity of Broadway's "Avenue Q," a "Sesame Street" sendup with devastating parodies of Muppet characters, who swear and have sex.
Christie was offended by "Avenue Q," mostly because the puppets closely resembled the characters to which he and his Henson colleagues devoted so much of their working lives. "Carnival!" seemed like an opportunity to remind audiences of the more refined aspects of the craft.
"Not only do I want to keep puppetry alive, but I feel a certain duty to puppet history," he adds. As a result, the puppets of this "Carnival!" are Christie's homage to great puppeteers of the past. The faces are meant to evoke the memory of Bil Baird -- who created the puppets for the "Lonely Goatherd" number in the film version of "The Sound of Music" -- and the slot-jaw construction is reminiscent of the visage of Charlie McCarthy, the alter ego of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
"I wanted subtle clues to the audience that these were period puppets," Christie says. There's also a wink to his "Sesame Street" roots. The theatrical Marguerite is fashioned with a decolletage that brings to mind the bodice of another high-maintenance puppet: Miss Piggy.
The puppets, which are 18 inches tall, have heads made from fiber carbon, a material that is light and durable and can be made to look like wood. Christie sent clay sculptures of the heads to James Chai, a moldmaker in Queens.
For their witty costumes, Christie turned to a New York colleague, Muriel Stockdale Grabé. And he had to be sure their outfits meshed with those of Paul Tazewell, who designed the costumes for the flesh-and-blood actors.
The detail is pretty remarkable, down to the puppets' watch fobs and bracelets. Christie is especially proud of the little toy mandolin he's given Carrot Top to play -- though for that particular coup, he must give equal billing to the Web. "I typed in 'mandolin,' " he says, "and bought it on eBay."