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Candide

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 13, 2017

For a 60-year-old, Candide sure looks and behaves as though it's just barely out of diapers. Its devotion to silliness, its ever-faltering attention span, its sliding all around scales both musical and dramatic—its existence in 2016 is a beaming monument to brightness and color and ardor and gaiety. Is it any surprise, then, that it's found a natural life partner in Harold Prince, the eternally youthful Broadway director who, over the last 40-odd years, has been shepherding it toward a success deeper than it enjoyed at its 1956 premiere? Or that, in its latest Prince-helmed New York City Opera production, which is running through Sunday at the Rose Theater, it's more committed than ever to having and making fun at the expense of anything and everything else?

Neither comes as a shock, and the question of whether either even should almost doesn't seem worth asking anymore. Under Prince, this unclassifiable musical-operetta hybrid, which (in this incarnation called the "opera house version") boasts a book by Hugh Wheeler, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics from him as well as Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, and Richard Wilbur, has taken on a dotty, dizzy life of its own and must be assessed (and frequently enjoyed) on its own limited terms. And although Prince has implemented some tweaks from his earlier City Opera spin (which premiered in 1982), it is, by and large, the same show, with the same pleasures and the same problems that have long made it an undisputed classic it just isn't that easy to warm to.

Conceived as a traveling-wagon entertainment put on by Voltaire (the author of the source novella), it weaves a picaresque surrounding the handsome young Candide, who is banished after falling in love with his beautiful cousin Cunegonde, and then travels the globe operating under the philosophy (of his teacher, Dr. Pangloss) that he and his friends are living in "the best of all possible worlds." The confusion and heartbreak he experiences along the way, from slavery and murder to an earthquake and a shipwrecks, challenge his beliefs until there's not much left to do but live up to mankind's innate function of deriving the truest pleasure and sense of purpose from work.

If the score as assembled here is not exactly incomparable, certainly some numbers qualify for that descriptor, from Candide's melancholy parting aria "It Must Be So" to overwhelmingly lush finale, "Make Our Garden Grow," and that majestically rollicking overture, which has attained an unmatched fame all its own. Equal parts soaring and playful, with legit entries like "Oh Happy We" and "You Were Dead, You Know" popping up organically around comedic mini-masterpieces like the saucy "I Am Easily Assimilated" and the bouncing "What's the Use?", the song stack burrows into your ear and thrills with its unusual, unexpected artistry.

With its layers of storytelling artifice and slapdash, full-speed-ahead personality, however, this Candide does not move you readily. As a result, the rift between what you feel (too little) and what you hear (too much) rapidly becomes a bug rather than a feature, with its various components waging a kind of bewildering civil war. If it's supposed to be a pure lark, why is it not once drop-dead funny? If it's supposed to be serious, why all the glitzy presentational lacquer? Even the design (sets by Clarke Dunham, costumes by Judith Dolan, lights by Ken Billington), inspired in no small part by Prince's previous outings with the material (including the 1997 Broadway revival), might as well have come out of a superannuated storybook, so why do so many parts of it appear to be set in the modern day? Answers from those involved are not quite forthcoming.

Given the bonkers business—with the action spilling into the house as Candide scootches past audience members, Voltaire conducting the orchestra (usually led, with spirit, by the director's son, Charles) at one point, and modern commentary abutting Monty Python-like zaniness—Prince gives the impression of aiming at distraction, and hitting it square between the eyes. You can't have a terrible time watching it or listening to it, because Prince knows every theatrical trick and then some. (He invented most of them, after all.) But if, because of this, his mounting could not possibly be better at being what it is, it also could not possibly be worse at being anything else. And I'm not sure I can name any show that ever became great without somehow becoming more than the sum of its parts. This one, too often, doesn't even try.

Blame its jumbled provenance, if you like. Originally conceived, more expansively and adventurously for a libretto by Lillian Hellman, today it always appears to be searching in Wheeler's more faithful but less rich for meaning it has no hope of finding. Characters get wonderful songs, but rarely need to sing them. Despite the nonstop, derailing-freight-train content, nothing ever really happens. The longer we observe, the less we know what's going on. This script, as Prince and his choreographer, Patricia Birch, have pounced on it with heretofore unimagined breathlessness, makes nothing simple, while at the same time eschewing complexity. Root beer is tough to drink when it's all froth.

Even so, the largely spectacular cast ensures it goes down easily. Gregg Edelman has never been better than he is as Voltaire, Pangloss, and a host of other philosophical-prophet type characters, his urbane, genial sense of humor and pointed baritone corralling an unruly collection of parts into a sumptuously unified whole. Linda Lavin catapults her role of the Old Lady into the footlights 10 blocks away with her impeccably timed and martini-dry delivery. Broadway vets Brooks Ashmanskas and Chip Zien are riots in a Gatling gun series of walk-ons. Jessica Tyler Wright is earnest but effective as the maid Paquette. Jay Armstrong Johnson is too light as Candide and Keith Phares overplays the dandy as the self-obsessed Maximilian, but both are more than adequate. Best of all is Meghan Picerno, who marshals as Cunegonde, particularly in her glimmering showpiece "Glitter and Be Gay," a comic sense and coloratura that recall Kristin Chenoweth at her considerable best.

Alas, even when everything is right, which it invariably is when the likes of Picerno and Lavin are center stage, a pervasive wrongness still makes its presence unavoidably felt. Prince has, for more than four decades, done all he can to wrangle this beast, and his success at achieving that goal is obvious, even if the point of doing so isn't. Maybe the real issue is that, by letting it run wild, Candide has been tamed too much, with its structured sense of crazy at odds with Bernstein's ear-seducing regal chaos? Or maybe this is a show that, at least in this form, should not be fixed. But with all the assembly work Prince has done on the shards, who in their right mind would dare risk breaking it again?


Candide
Through January 15
Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater, Broadway and 60th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.jazz.org


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