No musical in recent years has looked or sounded better on a Kennedy Center stage than the revival of "Carnival!," the tender 1961 love story, set to Bob Merrill's score, that has been buffed to a ravishing sheen by director Robert Longbottom.
To put on a show that is all about illusions -- the creating of them as well as the dashing of them -- the Kennedy Center has come to the right man. Longbottom, who has ample experience in the spectacle genre, both as a director at Radio City Music Hall and with the 1997 Broadway musical "Side Show," brings a gimlet eye to this fragile and peculiar romantic fable of a despairing puppeteer and the naive gamine who restores him.
In concert with a superior design team -- Andrew Jackness (sets), Paul Tazewell (costumes) and Ken Billington (lighting) -- Longbottom places the ragtag characters of the traveling Parisian circus in that weird, carnival world of contrived happiness. This is a midway of both enchantment and desperation, of beguiling acts and harsh realities: a magician who serially cheats on his assistant; a ringmaster of more than ordinary stinginess; a puppeteer who resents his puppets.
It's so right for Jackness to put the road-show circus on versatile, rolling set pieces that fly across the Eisenhower stage. And so apt to paint the sky above it as moody gray tufts. No matter how flashily Tazewell festoons the carny workers, or how gaudily the jugglers' and acrobats' faces are made up, this circus operates not only under the big top but also under a cloud.
The hazard in all the backstage agita of "Carnival!" is that Michael Stewart's book for the musical flirts with an all-too-heavy-heartedness. Owing to its morose hero Paul (Jim Stanek), a dancer whose war injuries have forced him to pursue a lowlier career in sideshow puppetry, the work is swathed in the character's dank mist of disappointment. Add to this the sadness in the background of enigmatic Lili (Ereni Sevasti), an orphan who shows up at the midway guileless and destitute, and there is the potential for a surefire downer.
Fortunately, one also has Merrill's lovely score, rife with affecting ballads ("Mira," "She's My Love") and pleasing circus numbers ("A Sword and a Rose and a Cape," "Beautiful Candy"). Longbottom, too, working with Stewart's surviving sister, Francine Pascal, has removed some of the starch by trimming the book and one of Lili's early numbers, "A Very Nice Man." And the performances of Stanek and particularly the splendid Sevasti appealingly highlight the parallel searches Paul and Lili are on, for some understanding of where in this alienating universe they truly belong.
Her hair boyishly short and her costume a simple blue dress that accentuates Lili's outsider status, Sevasti makes a delightful case for a child-woman gradually shedding her innocence. (Her appearance seems a homage to Leslie Caron, who played the character in the 1953 movie "Lili," on which the musical is based.) Lili is first attracted to the musky Marco the Magnificent (Sebastian La Cause), an oily rogue forever betraying faithful doormat Rosalie (Natascia Diaz), who assists him in his magic act. Later, though, Lili's affections shift to Paul and his puppet retinue, a quartet of characters beautifully designed by Ed Christie, through which bitter Paul is able to express his sensitive side.
Lili responds to the puppets, and especially Paul's alter ego Carrot Top, as if they were real, and the way in which Sevasti's eyes meet theirs sustains the sweet mystery of trying to read Lili on the maturity meter. She is described as a "grown-up girl with the mind of a child," and as we are taken through this gritty little tale, we come to accept that she's traumatized rather than disabled, as anyone might be who has been separated from the only home she's known.
Stanek and Sevasti sing touchingly and with technical prowess, particularly in their final duet. Diaz's Rosalie is a winning comic creation and La Cause prowls with a big reptile's muscular grace. Marco's tricks, designed by Joe Eddie Fairchild, are an amusing array of stock sleight-of-hand, from the pre-David Copperfield era of dagger-throwing and swords shoved into a box.
At the same time, however, the excessive smugness with which La Cause invests Marco comes across as grimness rather than charm. Marco isn't a magnetic alternative here to Paul, as much as a brooding fellow traveler.
As a result, we're drawn even more powerfully to the character who reveals the most heart, Paul's assistant, Jacquot. Michael Arnold's superb portrayal is even more effective for all its quiet restraint. It is given to Jacquot the task of explaining to Paul that Lili is a girl of deep feeling, and Arnold's delivery of the news of Lili's love for the puppets is one of the production's most heartbreaking moments.
Jacquot also gets a production number, the fantasy song "Grand Imperial Cirque de Paris," and it's choreographed with aplomb by Longbottom. (His dances for Marco's earlier, elaborate number, "A Sword and a Rose and a Cape," evoke the old-Broadway panache of Jerome Robbins.)
If the Kennedy Center's goal here was to dress a difficult, neglected work in a coat of contemporary artistry, the aim has been achieved. No doubt about it: Longbottom makes this poignant world go 'round.