Candide, Music by Leonard Bernstein, book adapted from Voltaireís novel by Hugh Wheeler, lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and John LaTouche. Directed by Ralph Petillo.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Who knows what crueler fate might have befallen them?"
Candide is never the same twice. In itís initial version, dating from 1956, it had a book by Lillian Hellman and some additional lyrics by Dorothy Parker. That version played only 73 performances on Broadway. In 1974 it came back without Hellman and Parker but with a new book by Hugh Wheeler and additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. This time it ran for 740 performances. In 1997 it made a third appearance on the main stem with pretty much the same book and lyrics as the second version, but with some additional songs and with some material cut from the first version now restored but to different characters. This one lasted 104 performances.
Even though version two ran for almost two years it was never considered a major hit. There are also at least two different "opera" editions including one created for the Scottish Opera and that version is now the most frequently seen. Now, at the Unicorn Theatre, the second stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA, there is a version different from all the others, but clearly based on the second Broadway edition. Whether this is the actual version now licensed for production, or an extraction created by director Ralph Petillo, I do not know. What I do know is this: the show is pretty darn good.
I must admit that I have always liked Candide, and I saw the original. I wasnít crazy about the Harold Prince show in the Ď70s and I think the opera gets pretentious. But I love the songs and the characters and all the zany, inane things that happen to them. I adore "Glitter and be Gay," Cunegondeís aria to her jewels and her lost honor. I thrill to the choral back-up singing for "El Dorado," and the Bernstein bumpiness of changing rhythms and meters in "The Best of All Possible Worlds." In fact, there isnít a song in the multifarious scores that I donít like, including the Old Ladyís "I am Easily Assimilated," wonderfully performed by Julia Broder, which I often find myself humming.
Hereís the story, made easy. In Wesphalia, the illegitimate Candide loves aristocratic Cunegonde who finds out that she loves him too. They are separated by her parents and a war with Bulgaria. After wandering the world and floundering in the Atlantic, they are finally united in wedlock, although philosophically they are suddenly worlds apart. The End.
So itís the songs, you see, that make the show which is otherwise a simple, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy loses girl, boy loses girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, but does he really?
The Unicorn production has a cast of twenty one young actors, the interns and apprentices, and that should sound a death knell to any complex musical but somehow, letís call it luck, the show is a joy to watch. The silliness and the solidness of the showís score and book are working wonderfully in this zesty presentation that only young people could survive eight times a week.
The orchestra has been supplanted by two pianos and, for a change, this actually works. I donít know why, unless there is just such a richness in the arrangements that I didnít miss the other musical sounds that so enrich the work ordinarily. Matthew Stern and Jae Han are to be especially commended for their work in this show at grand pianos that flank the set, a jungle jim of pipes, planks and boxes, a widely colorful assortment actually, with the musical instruments seemingly built into the maze. Erin Kiernan has designed this wonderful world of entertaining compartments.
Ben Rosenblatt has the odd role of Dr. Pangloss who, in this version of the show, remains Dr. Pangloss throughout (in the original Wheeler script he became Voltaire, his own twin brother and somebody else Iíve forgotten). His tall, lanky body and quirky voice are just right for this odd character who preaches not what he practices but uses his preached philosophy to create his own oversexed environment. Rosenblatt is a genuinely comic talent, a nice addition to this company in such a role.
Cunegonde is played by McCaela Donovan, a young woman whose dark looks and dismal demeanor would be funny in any role. Iíve never seen a better scowling diva than Donovan. She sings well, acts well and dances flirtatiously. In the finale I nearly burst out with guffaws as she faced her future flawlessly furtive. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the serving maid Paquette, played brightly by Becky Webber. Her bio indicates that she also plays the violin, a talent that would have been an additional joy with Bernsteinís music. She has a lovely lyric voice and a sweetly comedic manner with the sensual material she is given in this show.
As Maximilian, the stunningly pretty prince, Kyle Shaeffer pulls off the nearly impossible task of making us like his character. He is often much more sympathetic than this character is meant to be and I liked that. Matthew Stern, the music director doubles in this production as the Governor of Colombia. He acts the role better than he sings it, and plays the piano better than he acts.
Candide himself is a role taken by a young singer/actor named Julian Whitley. He has, according to his bio, been forging a career in opera and that shows in the size and power of his voice. He would almost be better off if his voice was not so prominent in his performance. This is a small theater and doesnít require the kind of volume that he so easily projects. The young man is an excellent actor and an expert comedian, making the simplest of straight lines into hilarious statements with an innocence that is both delicious and upsetting. Singers trained for classical singing are not given the tools to take them through eight performances in a week and his character is the principal voice singing in no less than fifteen of the twenty-two musical numbers, with seven of them either solos or duets. Thatís a lot of singing.
The concept of a parochial or private school examining the story of Candide in almost modern dress is the presentation style that director Petillo uses in this production and, again, it works to the advantage of the piece. Jessica Risser-Milne has created the costumes and all of them felt just right in a surprising mixture of styles and periods. In a way the look of this show is reminiscent of the original Godspell. Jaime Davidson has done fine lighting and Janie Bullardís sound work serves the show nicely.
You may not love Candide the way I do. There are things here I admire, like cutting the two sheep out of the show and trimming the book. There are things I miss like the orchestra and the song "Quiet." There are things I wonít forget, though, and most of them are already mentioned. If I can fit it into my busy schedule I will make a return visit to this Candide, and thatís the first time this season Iíve felt that way about anything Iíve seen.
Ben Rosenblatt as Pangloss; photo: Amie Conner
McCaela Donovan as Cunegonde; photo: Amie Conner
Kyle Schaefer and Matthew Stern; photo: Amie Conner
Julian Whitley and Julia Broder; photo: Amie Conner
Candide plays at the Unicorn Theater on Route 7 in Stockbridge through August 15. For schedules and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5536.