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Carnival Musical: A Showcase for Muppets

Courtesy of the New York Times
February 7, 2002

Brian Stokes Mitchell was standing in a workshop on East 67th Street with the head of a fox on his hand. "That feels good," he said, as a pair of puppet makers hovered, wearing the hopeful looks of eager shoe salesmen. "So you're fitting in there?" one of them asked. "Are you as deep as you can go?"

Mr. Mitchell wiggled his fingers inside the unfinished head, carved from foam rubber. The fox's mouth moved. So, reflexively, did Mr. Mitchell's.

"I'll bring out the eyes more," one of the puppet makers, Larry Jameson, said to the other, Ed Christie.

"They're a little too deep-set," Mr. Christie replied.

As a Broadway musical star, Mr. Mitchell ("Ragtime," "Kiss Me, Kate") has been through his share of fittings, but never one so obsessed with the dimensions of his fingers. It was a novel experience, too, for the designers in the workshop, home to perhaps the most famous name in puppeteering: the Jim Henson Company, creator of the Muppets. Just as Mr. Mitchell was a newcomer to working in the Muppet mode of hand-into- mouth, the Muppeteers had never before ventured so completely into Mr. Mitchell's world.

The occasion of their paths crossing was a new production of a musical that calls on the talents of man and marionette: "Carnival," the 1961 show about a puppeteer on the midway who falls in love with a young woman adrift and alone. It is being revived as the first offering of the ninth season of Encores!, the popular series at City Center that each year presents three long- neglected musicals in concert form.

This new "Carnival," which began performances last night and runs through Sunday, features Mr. Mitchell as the puppeteer, Paul; Doug Sills as a magician, Marco the Magnificent; and Anne Hathaway, who played the reluctant princess in last year's Disney hit "The Princess Diaries," as the girl, Lili. It also features four puppets that were designed and built for the show under Mr. Christie's guidance in the Jim Henson Company's New York Muppet Workshop, a five-story building just off Third Avenue where Kermit, Miss Piggy and Big Bird have long been in residence.

While television and film have embraced puppets for eons, Broadway musicals have always been a less fruitful venue for inanimate actors. "Carnival," based on a 1953 movie, "Lili," which starred Mel Ferrer and Leslie Caron, is one of the few musicals in which puppets — the traditional kind, manipulated and "voiced" by trained puppeteers — can count on work.

It is only through the four puppets, Carrot Top, Marguerite, Renardo the Fox and Horrible Henry, a walrus, that the embittered Paul, a dancer hobbled by a war injury, can meaningfully communicate with the dispossessed Lili.

Seizing the Day at Once

Mr. Christie decided the Muppets had to be part of the production the minute he heard about it. A longtime theater fan, he had been looking for new projects for his staff of 18. "He called and said, "I'm from the Muppet workshop and we want to do your puppets,' " recalled Judith E. Daykin, City Center's executive director. He had not waited long to make his pitch: the call came on the day in November on which the production was announced.

"The puppets," said the show's director, Kathleen Marshall, "were the first ones cast." Mr. Christie, a veteran Henson hand, has long envisioned the theater as a creative outlet for the Muppets. In the theater world, the ascendancy of the Walt Disney Company (which, incidentally, held the stage rights to "Carnival" for several years) and the success of "The Lion King," with its abundant use of masks and animal figures, reaffirmed his intuition. The challenge was finding a show to use as a steppingstone to Broadway.

"We didn't have a strong theater division," Mr. Christie said of the workshop, best known for its 33-year involvement with "Sesame Street." (The company that produces the television show recently purchased the "Sesame Street" characters from EM.TV, the German media concern that bought the Jim Henson Company a few years ago.) Yet many in the Muppet workshop had theater backgrounds, having worked in costume departments or earned degrees in set design. "We thought that this could be an opportunity to see how we could work in this arena," Mr. Christie added.

One-Sided Relaxation

An issue for Encores! was what you might call the Miss Piggy factor: would the Muppets hog the spotlight? Although the nonprofit series has had its hits — the blockbuster Broadway revival of "Chicago" was a product of Encores! — the concerts were intended primarily to showcase the music and lyrics, in this case, a score by Bob Merrill and a book by Michael Stewart. No one at City Center wanted to produce "The Muppets Take Over a Musical." In fact, one of Mr. Christie's initial thoughts was to use Kermit and Miss Piggy as two of the "Carnival" puppets, an idea that was quickly shot down.

"I was concerned only until they talked to us and told us that they wanted direction on how Muppet-like we wanted it to be," said Jack Viertel, the artistic director of Encores! "Knowing that they can do anything, I just relaxed."

For Mr. Christie, however, relaxing was out of the question. Having won the job over several other puppet makers, he was now faced with the daunting task of conceiving, designing and rigging four new puppets.

"It usually takes us five, six weeks to build a character," he explained one day in January. For "Carnival," they would have to build four characters in three weeks. Given the production's compressed schedule, providing only 10 days of rehearsal before the first performance, the actors would have to learn the art of puppetry practically overnight. A pair of professional puppeteers also had to be hired.

"This," Mr. Christie said, betraying a trace of anxiety, "is a crunch."

A Shrimp Is a Beefeater

The Muppet workshop is in a building so low key it doesn't even have a lobby. There are no banners outside the door emblazoned with the profiles of Bert and Ernie, no illuminated signs bearing the likenesses of Oscar the Grouch or Cookie Monster. One has the impression that if word got out, the place might be overrun by toddlers, a kind of MTV studio mob scene for the 5-and- under set.

On the various floors, the Muppet builders, costume designers and mechanization experts work on a wide assortment of projects. In one corner, a torso for Big Bird, made of 4,000 turkey feathers, dangled like a vast hoop skirt; at a nearby work station, one of the costume makers, Polly Smith, was creating a Beefeater's uniform for a shrimp puppet that appears in television commercials for a seafood restaurant.

Ms. Marshall, the director, decided early on that while many bits of business in the carnival scenes could be jettisoned — the Encores! process mandates that the actors perform with scripts in hand — the puppets were central to the plot and had to be utterly convincing. "They have to enchant us, not just Lili," she explained.

In early January, Ms. Marshall and members of her design team, including John Lee Beatty, the set designer, and Martin Pakledinaz, the costume designer, met with the Muppet makers. "We talked a lot about scale — how will their features read, what they'll look like in the spotlight," said Mr. Christie, who had already gone to the drawing board.

What he developed were sketches reflecting both the musical's setting — mid-20th- century Europe, which meant the puppets at least had to seem to be cut from wood — and the puppets' personalities, as dictated by the script. Marguerite, for instance, is a plus- size diva, with luscious lips and an immaculate hairdo; Carrot Top, the red-headed boy puppet, is a lovable urchin, a cross, in Ms. Marshall's words, "between the young Mickey Rooney and Dondi."

Divided Task, Unified Look

Still, Mr. Christie wanted audiences to know their full pedigrees. (While Encores! paid for materials, the workshop provided the labor free.) "These are muppety-looking puppets," he said. "They definitely will have a Muppet sensibility." Most of all, though, the puppets had to seem as if they belonged in this particular "Carnival." "You have to balance how good this puppet is going to look," he added, "without stealing attention from the actors."

Mr. Christie doled out assignments: he would build Carrot Top; Mr. Jameson would be in charge of the fox; two other workshop stalwarts, Tom Newby and Tim Miller, would tackle Marguerite and the walrus. The boy, fox and diva were to be lightweight hand puppets, sculptured out of cubes of white foam that had to be dyed to approximate flesh tones. The walrus was to be a sack puppet, which is designed to have two hands inside the puppet. To clothe the four characters, Ms. Smith would work with another workshop designer, Jason Weber.

The four builders worked independently, with Mr. Christie shaping the overall look: in the show, they had to appear to be made by one person. The walrus, for instance, could not be so voluminous as to dwarf the others. "He's building a spiral, boned neck on which he will drape the wool fabric that we're still shopping for," Mr. Christie explained, guiding a visitor to Mr. Miller's walrus in progress.

It was Jan. 15, just two weeks until the puppets had to be presented at an Encores! rehearsal, and the builders were trying to pick up the pace. For Renardo the Fox, Mr. Jameson had to abandon the first head: it was too small to be viewed from the back of the City Center auditorium.

Mr. Christie was also fretting about the strawlike raffia in vibrant reds and oranges that he had decided to use liberally, to simulate puppet hair. "It's noisy," he said. "I'm worried, but we'll settle it."

A Dividend From Voiceovers

A week later, Mr. Mitchell arrived to advance his whirlwind indoctrination. Mr. Christie had already given him a generic Muppet body to practice with at home. Now, with rehearsals a week away, he was meeting the three characters for whom he would have to supply voices. The voice for the fourth, Marguerite, would be provided by David Costabile, the actor cast as Paul's assistant, Jacquot.

"I spent years doing cartoon voiceovers," Mr. Mitchell said — a bonus as far as Ms. Marshall was concerned; she did not know about that when he was cast. "I'm thinking of ways to go with the voices."

This was a bit more complicated than it sounded. Because of the complexities of scenes in which all four puppets appear together, the two professional puppeteers hired for the show, John Tartaglia and Stephanie D'Abruzzo, would at times have to synchronize the manipulation of the puppet mouths with the rhythms of Mr. Mitchell's delivery.

The eyes, too, were a worry. Not Mr. Mitchell's; Carrot Top's. Would he, the actor wondered, become proficient enough to create the illusion of the puppet making eye contact, a behavioral detail that is a point of pride with the Muppet workshop? "Our mantra is the magic triangle, the eyes and the nose," Mr. Christie said. Later, he told Mr. Mitchell, "Our job is to teach you as many tricks and bring as much comfort to you in this discipline as possible."

Mr. Mitchell was particularly taken with the walrus. "I think it's my favorite character," he said, which seemed to deflate Mr. Christie ever so slightly. He, after all, had built Carrot Top. "Everyone always likes the big dumb one," the Muppet maker said.

Straight to the Stage

On Jan. 30, Mr. Mitchell met the puppets again, in a rehearsal room at City Center. Mr. Christie and Fred Buchholz, who cares for the puppets during the run, had delivered the finished characters to Ms. Marshall and company. Immediately, the puppets were on, singing and swaying in numbers like "Yum Ticky Ticky Tum Tum" and the signature song, "Love Makes the World Go Round."

Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Costabile stood next to the puppet theater, designed by Mr. Beatty as a clever parody of City Center's gold- rimmed proscenium arch, and added their sounds to the sight of the four new cast members. Mr. Christie sat to the side like a well-behaved stage mother. The peak had been scaled, the assignment completed. When exactly had work stopped? Wearily, Mr. Christie glanced at a clock. "About 10 minutes ago," he said.

Shows Until Sunday

"Carnival," a City Center Encores! production of the musical, is at the City Center, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan, through Sunday. Performances are tonight at 8, tomorrow at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Limited tickets: $25 and $45. Information: (212) 581-1212.

 
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