‘Carnival!’ ancestry: puppets, novels, Hollywood

Courtesy Photo
Ryan Drummond and Ashley Jarrett play characters whose connection comes via puppets in 42nd Street Moon’s “Carnival!”
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People of a certain age in the Eureka Theatre’s audience may experience deja vu when watching Ashley Jarrett as Lili sing “Love Makes the World Go ’Round” to a puppet.

The scene from 42nd Street Moon’s new production of Bob Merrill’s 1961 “Carnival!” is right out of a heartwarming picture on a black-and-white TV, reminiscent of Fran Allison singing to puppets on the “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” show.

The connection, except for that hit song, which came later, is meaningful. The 1940s TV show was based on Paul Gallico’s short story “The Man Who Hated People,” about a disgruntled puppeteer whose better nature comes to the fore only when he manipulates the puppets.

The story was expanded in the novel “Love of Seven Dolls,” the basis for the 1953 hit movie “Lili,” starring Leslie Caron as the starry-eyed waif and Mel Ferrer as the puppeteer.

For the stage musical, producer David Merrick engaged Merrill to write the music and cast Anna Maria Alberghetti and Jerry Orbach (in his Broadway debut.) Although it was a hit on Broadway, its glory faded. One of its rare revivals provided 19-year-old Anne Hathaway with her theater debut.

Among the show’s pleasant songs are the hits “Love Makes the World Go ’Round” and “Mira,” about Lili’s hometown, where everybody, pre-“Cheers,” knows her name. (The film’s “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo,” composed by Bronislaw Kaper, is not in the musical.)

Greg MacKellan’s lively stage direction, Dave Dobrusky’s musical direction and terrific one-man orchestra pianism, a fine cast, and brief but fun dance numbers choreographed by Jayne Zaban make 42nd Street Moon’s “Carnival!” work.

Even for a musical, the story is paper-thin, but entertaining enough thanks to the performers doing their jobs.

Jarrett is a believable Lili, improbably naive but commanding sympathy as she struggles against Ryan Drummond’s rude antihero puppeteer, falling in love with his puppets. Drummond operates and voices lovable Carrot Top and scheming Reynardo the Fox. Michael Doppe, who plays Jacquot, handles Marguerite and Horrible Henry.

Bill Olson, as Marco the Magnificent in hot pursuit of Lili, and Dyan McBride as his long-suffering but saucy Rosalie are terrific. The large supporting cast energetically acts, sings and dances through it all.

Carnival! Presented by 42nd Street Moon

  • Where: Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., S.F.
  • When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 6 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes April 21
  • Tickets: $25 to $75
  • Contact: (415) 255-8207, www.42ndstmoon.org

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