Circus dreams turn to the stuff of nightmares in the Bay Area Harbour Playhouse production of “Carnival.”
Written in 1961 with music and lyrics by Bob Merrill and book by Michael Stewart, “Carnival” is advertised as a hauntingly wonderful musical including puppets, clowns and dancers. Instead I found it to be a depressing story romanticizing domestic violence.
Orphan Lili seeks a job with a down-at-the-heel circus when her father dies. She is enthralled by the camaraderie of the exotic performers and seeking a new place to call home. Instead, she is almost sexually assaulted by a stall holder, betrayed by a womanizing magician, conned into working for free by the ringmaster and bullied and physically assaulted by a bitter puppeteer.
When given the option of returning to her hometown, she chooses to stay with the puppeteer despite his ill treatment.
I’m tired of this beauty and the beast-style romance. It does a disservice to both men and women by promoting the idea that men are savage beasts, unable to express love or passion without violence, until tamed by the love of a good (understanding and uncomplaining) woman.
Director Bennie Nipper has drawn some good acting from her cast, especially leads Berkley Rose Pearl, Curmira Bill, Sam Kee, Bill Jones, Fred Pearl and A.J. Johnson, but the singing, music and lighting need work.
On opening night the quality of singing was inconsistent and some songs were performed without music, while other songs were performed to prerecorded music that already had a vocal track. It’s a shame the technical difficulties weren’t ironed out in rehearsal or, better yet, performed live by pianist Jennifer Figge.
Bennie Nipper’s set design was well executed. Colorful circus folk march onto the black, empty stage and construct the set. They erect a white wooden pole and colorful pennant flags along with glamorous posters, well painted by Cathy De Young, advertising the circus acts.
It’s a neat moment highlighting the romantic here-one-day-gone-the-next appeal of the circus. It also made for a poignant moment at the end when the performers take everything down and leave the stage through the audience with their bags packed for the next city.
Other highlights were the magic tricks performed by actor Fred Pearl, the puppet show from A.J. Johnson and Curmira Bill, and Colleen Reyes’ clown act and unicycle ride.
“Carnival” had some entertaining moments, but the technical problems and the dated story means this show is probably best left to hardcore fans or friends and family of the cast.
Shannon Caldwell lives on Galveston Island and has been a journalist and theater reviewer for 20 years.