Summer Stock Austin's Carnival

The production offers impressive spectacle, but the musical's treatment of women is still a problem

The cast of Summer Stock Austin's Carnival (Photo by Summer Stock Austin)

Lili, the protagonist of the musical Carnival, is the very definition of an ingénue: young, innocent, and unsophisticated. Kate Brimmer performs the role and its challenging songs capably and with charm in Summer Stock Austin's production. Whether or not as an audience member you root for her character depends on what decade you exist in.

Carnival's treatment of women is disturbing. First, there's Lili, recently orphaned and taken in by a traveling carnival. She falls for Marco the Magnificent (Tyler Brown), a womanizing stage magician, thinking his magic is the real thing. When Marco rejects her, she begins performing with a puppet show (constructed by Connor Hopkins) yet somehow fails to grasp that puppets are controlled by puppeteers like grouchy war vet Paul (Connor Barr). Paul is a jerk to her face, but his sensitivity via the puppets reveals his true self, if only Lili realized that puppets aren't real. It's like Pride & Prejudice meets Cyrano meets Sesame Street.

Paul falls for Lili, whose emotional age is either 17 or 3, depending on the scene. He sings that "she's a grownup girl with the mind of a child." Apparently, that's a turn-on. In Act II, he slaps her in the face. Right after that, he sings the song "She's My Love."

Then there's Rosalie (Lynley Eilers) in the show's secondary romance, if you can call it that. She is both assistant to and lover of Marco, but she's fed up with his cheating, so she makes arrangements of her own. While practicing one of their routines, Marco has her locked in a box and tricks her out of her means of financial independence, all the while sticking fake swords through her. But it's funny, right? Because it's all a performance? Ultimately, it's Rosalie's fault, as she admits to Lili, because she slept with Marco before he married her.

So how does an audience member today watch this musical? The book by Michael Stewart and music and lyrics by Bob Merrill are from 1961, based on a film from 1953. One can argue that Carnival is a product of its times, as is much of American musical theatre. Or that for many, a musical is just about seeing songs and dances and maybe a kiss at the end, or watching friends and loved ones challenge themselves as performers. Perhaps the story matters less from some perspectives.

Yet Carnival remains problematic, if viewed critically. So much of the behavior in it is dated and paternalistic, to the degree that I find it disturbing a program working with young student performers would choose to produce it – especially with the abbreviated rehearsals typical to summer stock programs. Problematic plays and musicals can be revived effectively, but often that requires time, resources, and maturity. Director Scott Thompson's staging does not display the nuance necessary to grapple with the infantilizing of its romantic heroine, the act of slapping a woman because she idolizes the wrong man, or making a joke out of the skewering and punishment of a "loose" woman.

Carnival affords its producers the opportunity for lots of bells and whistles: jugglers, puppets, stage magic, aerial dancers, and fantastic costumes (Teresa Carson). The performers here have great technical skill as singers and dancers. The spectacle is impressive, but it requires that one look only so deep.


Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
Through Aug. 13
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.

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Summer Stock Austin, Scott Thompson, Connor Hopkins, Teresa Carson, Kate Brimmer, Tyler Brown, Connor Barr, Lynley Eilers, Bob Merrill, Michael Stewart

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