Presented by Encores! at City Center, 131 W. 55 St., NYC, Feb. 7–10.
In a single spot, a lone actor plays a mournful, somehow hopeful tune on a concertina. The orchestra sneaks in, strings and woodwinds mostly. Then the chorus, entering slowly as the music swells, the lights rise, and a frisson of pleasure runs through the audience. So began a loving, detailed, moving, altogether charming "Carnival," the season's first Encores! at City Center, assuring us that all is as right with New York as it can be these days.
The 1961 musical—a 719-performance hit on Broadway, a 34-performance flop in London—had music and lyrics by Bob Merrill and a book by Michael Stewart, based on the same Helen Deutsch material as the 1953 MGM film, "Lili." (Wendy Wasserstein did the Encores! adaptation.)
In 1961, it was director-choreographer Gower Champion who won the most plaudits, eschewing showbiz glitz to create a sentimental, rueful, magical world. For this "Carnival," Kathleen Marshall's direction and choreography were equally delicate, even spellbinding. Unafraid of silences and shadows, she evoked seedy, brave characters forever on the fringe of success.
As Lili, Anne Hathaway made a delicious NYC debut. Avoiding sappiness, she had us believe as much in her naïveté as her transformation to maturity. As Paul, the embittered puppeteer, Brian Stokes Mitchell showed what a peerless spinner of songs he is, while David Costabile was endearing as his assistant, Jacquot. For comic relief, Debbie Gravitte was a raucous Rosalie, David Margulies a kvetching Schlegel, and Peter Jacobson a nebbishy Dr. Glass.
Most impressive was Douglas Sills' magician, Marco the Magnificent. Mocking his character's self-adulation, Sills was a seductive, preening rooster, full of gusto and impishness. Won't someone please write him a show?
Under the unerring musical direction of Rob Fisher, with scenery by John Lee Beatty, lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, sound by Scott Lehrer, and adorable Jim Henson Company puppets, this was a gem of a production.