One of the most wonderful – and rare – evenings at a theater is when the show starts off on a high note and just keeps getting better and better from there until you get to an ending where your heart is lying on the floor and your eyes are clouded with tears.
That’s what it was like opening night of a spectacular production of "Carnival" at In Tandem Theatre, under the masterful direction of Jane Flieller. This was a production so far out of the In Tandem comfort zone that the potential pitfalls were many – but none proved to be to difficult to overcome.
"Carnival" is an old musical, created in 1961 and based on a 1953 movie, "Lili." It’s a romantic story about a young small town girl (Susan Wiedmeyer) who arrives at a carnival, looking for adventure. Lili comes under the spell of Marco the magician (Steve Koehler) in the carnival, whose predatory history with young women is well-known to everyone, including his faithful assistant Rosalie (Beth Mulkerron).
All of this takes place under the baleful gaze of Schlegel (David Ferrie) who owns the carnival. Adding to the mix and the story are the two men who run the puppet show, Paul (J. Keegan Siebken) and Jacquot (Nathan Marinan).
Joining those main characters are another nine actors/singers/dancers who fill the roles of those you’d expect to see at a carnival, from the roustabouts to the can-can girls.
The small space at In Tandem’s Tenth Street Theatre has never been home to a production this size. The normal fare is a cast of five or so, with the action limited to a single set. Lots of sitting and walking. Fifteen actors and dancers sounds like a recipe for a disaster of collision in the middle of the dance floor.
But the cast of artists who put this show together did an absolutely amazing job. Music director Josh Robinson led a quartet of musicians who never missed a beat during the show's challenging music. The harmonies of the ensemble were perfectly pitched and modestly rendered.
Karl Miller took the actors and choreographed numbers both big and small with the kind of creative energy would have been at home on a much larger stage. The dance numbers, especially the ensemble numbers, were fully realized with no overt concessions to the size of the theater.
And finally there is Kathy Smith who designed the costumes and built the puppets that play such an integral role in this story. It is as a puppet that Paul realizes and professes his love for Lili, unable to do so face to face. Her work with the four puppets is vibrant, and the job that Siebken and Marinan do with them is equally scintillating.
Finding ways to give credit to this entire production is problematic, and it may well be best to start at the very beginning.
Ferrie, a veteran Milwaukee presence, has the kind of crusty vulnerability that defines the owner of this touring carnival. He knows where his bread is buttered and guards his pennies and his stars with vigor. It is always a delight to see him in action.
Koehler is a magnetic force on stage. He is a true man’s man, full of the kind of powerful machismo that makes him irresistible to women and despicable to men who don’t have the same kind of bravado.
As his devoted assistant, Mulkerron once again proves that we don’t get to see her enough on Milwaukee stages. She can sing and act with the best this city has ever seen, and her lovelorn plea in "Humming" with Ferrie is an emotional wallop, a cry for a woman cheated on again and who knows she will put up with it, again.
Marinan was a surprise to me, taking the role of best friend to a depth you normally don’t see in a production. He was the bridge over the turmoil filled relationship between his best friend Paul and Lili.
Wiedmeyer was an absolute marvel. The wide-eyed girl one moment, teetering on the edge of womanhood the next. Happy and sad, hopeful and dispirited, full of wonder and full of doubt, she had it all. She is a marvelous singer and actor and created a complex character that left no doubt about what was making her tick.
Siebken was also new to me, and his rustic tenor was one of the highlights of the night. He was obviously conflicted about his life and about his growing attraction for this young girl who has dropped into the midst of his world. The realization of his love when he sang the touching "Her Face" resembled nothing so much as the classic "I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face," from "My Fair Lady."
Paul is wary of his feelings for Lili, and he treats her cruelly. Their duet in which they sing together – she singing "I Hate Him" and he reprising "Her Face" – is the kind of magic that happens far to seldom in any theater. It was a moment of high emotion and sophisticated depth, a moment to be cherished.
Moments like those and the ending of the musical – not with music but with small gestures – had more than one member of the audience reaching for a tissue to wipe the tears from their cheeks. I was one of them.
I hope this production signals to other theaters in town that staging big shows in small spaces can be wonderful, a way to earn a loyalty among audience members that is critically important to survival. In Tandem has clearly shown the way.
"Carnival" runs through May 14 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
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