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THEATER REVIEW : A Fresh-Faced Soprano Rises to the Role of Lili in 'Carnival' : Erin Appling is a worthy successor to Leslie Caron and Anna Marie Alberghetti. The show has plenty of talent and spectacle.


A naive orphaned waif named Lili joins a down-and-out traveling carnival. She immediately develops a crush on the flamboyant magician, the relationship watched from the sidelines by an embittered puppeteer. That's the story of "Carnival," a colorful musical now playing at the Conejo Players Theater in Thousand Oaks.

Closing the players' current season, it was one of two ambitious musicals opening last weekend in Thousand Oaks--only a few miles apart, in fact. Fortunately for those who feel compelled to attend "The Music Man" before it closes this weekend, there still will be a chance to see "Carnival," which runs until early December.

The raw material for "Carnival" began as a Saturday Evening Post short story by Paul Gallico and subsequently turned into the hit 1953 film musical "Lili," with Leslie Caron in the title role. It was then adapted as a Broadway musical for the 1962 season. That version had a new libretto by Michael Stewart (then enjoying the success of "Bye, Bye Birdie," as was director Gower Champion). The new songs were by veteran Tin Pan Alley tunesmith Bob Merrill, best known at the time for such hits as "(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window," "Honeycomb" and "If I Knew You Were Comin', I'd Have Baked a Cake," as well as Broadway shows "New Girl in Town" and "Take Me Along." He later wrote the lyrics for "Funny Girl" and "Sugar."

The Conejo Players' version, directed by Pamela Matheson, stars Erin Appling as Lili. In a role the fresh-faced soprano might have been born to play, Appling is a worthy successor to Caron and Broadway star Anna Marie Alberghetti. This is her first major musical role in the county after several seasons at the Moorpark Melodrama, and she certainly rises to the occasion.

Jim Holmes and Michael Sollazzo co-star--Holmes as the carnival's magician and resident Lothario, Marco the Magnificent, and Sollazzo as Paul Berthalet, once a famous dancer but injured in The War, crippling his leg and his ego. A talented puppeteer, Paul thinks of the carnival as "the bottom of the barrel; a hiding place for all the misfits on the planet." His sunnier side, such as it is, comes through when he's behind the curtain, speaking through puppets Carrot Top and Horrible Henry.

(Old-timers in the audience might spot the resemblance of Paul's act to that of "Kukla, Fran and Ollie," a popular show in the early days of television; Gallico had dedicated his story to Fran Allison and creator-puppeteer Burr Tillstrom).

Also featured are Scott Mansfield, affecting the show's only French accent as Paul's co-puppeteer; Natalie Holcomb as Marco's brassy longtime assistant and frustrated lover; and Bill Clark as the carnival's owner and ringmaster. The huge supporting cast and chorus include several circus-type acts, notably juggler Lorry Faulkner, gymnast Jodi Johnson and a dancer--played by Lady Jan Faulkner--who spends much of her time onstage with a live boa constrictor wrapped around her.

(The name of the troupe's mascot cat, Selsdon, is missing from the current program, and the snake appeared to be wearing a particularly contented smile on Saturday night. Don't worry: According to Conejo Players sources, Selsdon has simply retired).

Shelley Saxer is the show's musical director, with a large orchestra hidden somewhere offstage, and Deirdre Richards is the choreographer.

The show's ambitious but unmemorable songs may be its weakest point, though "Carnival" did produce the sort-of hit "Love Makes the World Go Round." But there's plenty of talent and spectacle on hand here, and it's doubtful that any but the youngest viewers will be bored by this fine production.


* WHAT: Carnival.

* WHERE: Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks.

* WHEN: Thursday through Saturday nights at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through Dec. 10.

* COST: $8 general admission Thursday, $10 Friday and $12 Saturday.

* FYI: Discounts are available for groups, children under 12 and seniors. For reservations or further information, call 495-3715.

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