Partying On with “Once Upon a Carnival” 

Presented by Moonbox Productions
Part of the 2024, third annual Boston New Works Festival
Directed by Regine Vitale
Written by Angele Maraj and Brianna Pierre
Music Directed by Harrison Acosta

June 22 – June 23, 2024
The Boston Center For The Arts
The Plaza Theatre
527 Tremont Street
Boston, MA
Moonbox Productions on Facebook
Once Upon a Carnival on Instagram

Review by Gillian Daniels

Note: The reviewer is acquainted with one of the writers.

BOSTON, Mass. – Last year’s reading for the first half of Once Upon a Carnival was electric. In it, we watch New York teenager Bhavan (Marshall Romano) travel with his impulsive mother, Radhika (Shubhra Prakash), to Trinidad. With Bhavan, we learn the delights and perils of his new home and, once he meets fellow teenager Jada (Ekaterina Hicks-Magaña) and the eccentric Tantie (Nina Giselle, who approaches the part with charm and humor), they explore the magic of the island. The story’s initial joy and effervescence is largely untouched. It’s a bad sign, however, that the workshop I attended had more polish than the full production. 

In this new version of the show, the second act gives us more time to understand the background of Tantie and Picton (Brandon Lee). We also meet a new character, the charming La Diablesse (JM, a drag artist who absolutely mesmerizes as they steal the show). The ending, suffice to say, is packed, delightfully crammed with ideas, characters, and mythology. 

The two biggest changes from last year’s reading are the addition of this second act and the minimal set design, which is a giant, cardboard tree in the center of the stage. It’s a piece that could have used more care and detail to really match the writing and finesse of the show. That lack of attention is unfortunately evident throughout the production. Even the program has a number of typographical inconsistencies, suggesting Moonbox Production didn’t take the time and effort Once Upon a Carnival needed to really shine.

Perhaps the most glaring issue I had was with the sound. On the night I went, the microphones varied in quality with some words completely swallowed up while other mics projected the breathing of the actors. This needed to be addressed long before it was brought to stage! Also jarring were several singers who were notably off-pitch. Most of the performers are on-key and demonstrate powerful voices, but in a musical, one singer hitting bad notes, especially in moments of high tension, really deflates the emotional resonance. 

Similarly, the show needs a stronger hand to address the pacing and staging. Actors take long pauses, songs during the second half of the show need to be condensed, and set changes are often awkwardly timed. At a pivotal moment where Tantie casts a spell, for example, another character removes a chair from the stage, distracting from the central action. We also see a character dance with someone else as a means of story development, but the rest of the stage is so busy, it’s hard to know where to look or what happened.

With all these issues, I still found the characters of Bhavan and Jada better understanding themselves meaningful. This is a testament to their acting abilities and the sense of longing in songs like “Legendary,” “Haus of La Diablesse,” and “Beat of My Own Drum.”

Yet I’m frustrated that the show has not evolved more. There were vital elements needed to make this musical work–rhythm, cuts in the right places, and careful staging. Why didn’t this happen? As I wrote in my review of the reading, “If Moonbox wants to continue to give a platform for new talent, it needs to do its due diligence. Once Upon a Carnival’s talkback after the show was not well advertised and much of the audience left before it could give comments and fulfill the purpose of what a play workshop is supposed to be—a workshop. The story of the show itself is about the role of community and, while I appreciate Moonbox’s ambition, it needs to be a community and give each of its shows the attention they deserve.” I stand by this. Moonbox Productions has work to do.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a donation. Every cent earned goes towards the upkeep and continuation of the New England Theatre Geek.
Become a patron at Patreon!

Comments are closed.