Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of School of Rock
Candide , based on the novella by Voltaire, was a gigantic flop when it opened on Broadway in 1956. The book by Lillian Hellman, this being her only attempted musical, was blasted as a dry and somber adaptation of Voltaire's wryly satiric novel, and its efforts to cast aspersions on McCarthyism felt leaden rather than incisive. Audiences in 1956 seemed to prefer their satire to be free of subtlety, making Li'l Abner, based on Al Capp's long-running comic strip, a hit that same season. Other hits of the season were Bells Are Ringing, The Most Happy Fella and, the grand champion, My Fair Lady. Who would mourn Candide with such other treasures on the boards?
Thankfully, Candide was by no means forgotten. While the critics demolished Hellman's book, Bernstein's score received high praise, and through its original cast album, it acquired a sizable cult following. The show's leading lady, Barbara Cook, established herself as theater royalty with her incredible performance of "Glitter and Be Gay," which remains a gold standard of comic coloratura to this day. The musical's quick dismissal on Broadway was among the disappointments in commercial theater that drove director Tyrone Guthrie far from the bright lights of New York to establish a regional theater company that could perform quality classics free of commercial pressure. Thus was born the Guthrie Theater, for which legions of Twin Cities' audience members are forever grateful.
Bernstein's work on Candide, with lyricist Richard Wilbur, was too good to be left alone. Lillian Hellman would not allow her book to be adapted, so Hugh Wheeler (who went on to write the book for Sweeney Todd) went back to Voltaire and started from scratch, with Stephen Sondheim contributing some new lyrics. This new Candide was conceived by director Hal Prince as an immersive experience, with the audience surrounded on all sides by the actors and musicians. It opened in 1973 Off-Broadway to hosannas and moved to Broadway, this time a big hit that ran almost two years. However, in remaking the musical, nips and tucks were taken to Bernstein's lengthy score. Wanting to have his cake and eat it toothe privilege of genius, one supposesBernstein took another crack at it, using Wheeler's free-wheeling book while restoring some of the music that had been sacrificed. This version, first produced by the Scottish Opera in 1994, is the version presented by Artistry.
Candide was the bastard son of a nobleman in the fictional kingdom of Westphalia. He, his father's legitimate children Cunegonde and Maximillian, both beautiful and both vain, along with the family's maid Paquette are all tutored by the philosopher Dr. Pangloss, who asserts that they live in "the best of all possible worlds." Wars, disease, rape and pillage, thievery, shipwrecks, prostitution and hypocrisy put Pangloss' lessons to the test. His exceedingly unlikely adventures take Candide and company to Portugal, Spain, Paris, Argentina, Surinam, Venice, the mythical land of El Dorado, and on the high seas.
Without question, the star of Artistry's concert production was Ms. Ruth, who has been Artistry's stalwart music directorstarting when it was the Bloomington Civic Theaterfor over fifty years, while lending her talents to a host of other theater companies and schools in the Twin Cities. Artistry productions have always offered impeccable musicianship. On this occasion, Ruth conducted an orchestra larger than is usually possible, placed prominently on stage, to give the glorious Bernstein score a performance worthy of his centenary birthday. The score incorporates the sounds of the many national settings through which the show moves, while giving it a unifying symphonic fullness and just enough show-tune brass and sentiment to secure its place in the canon of musical theater. Candide is sometimes considered more operetta than musical comedyand it has been brought into the repertoire of many opera companieswhich, for my money, only attests to the richness of its score, able to deliver beautifully in either arena.
Stage director Melissa Hart is herself well acquainted with the work, having understudied the role of The Old Lady, Cunegonde's chaperone of questionable virtue, on Broadway in a 1997 revival (also directed by Hal Prince), and she guided her actors to portray the flaws in their respective characters with comic oversell: Maximillian's vanity, Cunegonde's deceitfulness, Paquette's randy-ness, the Old Lady's jaded femme fatale, and Dr. Pangloss unredeemed charlatan ... all but Candide, whose innocence and search for truth are played with sincerity to the bitter end.
The innocence and yearning in Candide's character is deeply conveyed by Ben Johnson, both as an actor and through a soulfully beautiful tenor, which attests to his experience in opera. His "It Must Be So" and "Nothing More Than This" conveyed all the pain in Candide's tender heart. Courtney Groves played Cunegonde at the performance I attended, and gave a masterful performance, both enacting the fickle heroine of the piece and, with a gorgeous soprano, bringing the house down with "Glitter and Be Gay." Duets between the two, such as "Oh, Happy We" and "You Were Dead, You Know," showcased their harmonized voices and the comic disconnect between naïve Candide and calculating Cunegonde.
Dominque Wooten was mincingly fussy as Maximillian, though the score did not give him enough opportunity to use his beautiful baritone. Becca Hart was an adorable Paquette, while Melissa Hart played The Old Lady as a survivor of worse things than anything dished out on stage, as she relates in a sassy "I Am Easily Assimilated." Gary Briggle was dandy as Dr. Pangloss, determined to maintain the façade of believing in the hair-brained philosophy he dishes out, and also as Voltaire, who introduces and narrates the tale. Paul Coates gleefully played several small parts. The choral work with the full ensemble, as in "Auto-da-fé," "Bon Voyage," and the soaring finale, "Make Our Garden Grow," was marvelous, start to finish.
As the occasion of this concert production was Bernstein's centenary year, the first and second acts each began with a video-taped presentation by Bernstein himself, introducing a performance of Candide in 1991. He offered interesting insights to the piece and conveyed his great and fully justified pride in his work. It was an unexpected treat to see and hear the master himself, so articulate and engaged in his artthough at the top of the second act, it seemed to go on too long, as the audience was anxious to get back to the music. Bernstein's output for musical theater was less than many other great Broadway composers. Aside from Candide, only On the Town, Wonderful Town, and West Side Story are well remembered, but what a glorious yield of music those shows produced.
This concert performance, an unusual choice for Artistry, offered their usual high standard of musical performance with the chance to hear, played in full force, a blazing treasure of musical theater. It is regrettable that it could only be mounted for four performances. Perhaps either Artistry or another ambitious company will muster the fortitudeand fundingfor a full production of Candide to enable more theatergoers to relish one of their great favorites anew, or discover it for the first time.
Candide was presented March 1-3, 2018, at Artistry, 1800 W. Old Shakopee Rd., Bloomington MN. For more information, visit artistrymn.org.
Music: Leonard Bernstein; Book: Hugh Wheeler, based on the book by Voltaire; Lyrics: Richard Wilbur with additional lyrics by John La Touche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim. Director: Melissa Hart; Music Director: Anita Ruth; Sound Design: Matt Bombich; Production Manager/Technical Director: Chris Carpenter; Stage Manager: Sonja Thorson; Assistant Stage Manager: Lee Johnson.
Cast: Gary Briggle (Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss/Martin), Paul Coate (Governor/Vanderdendur), Courtney Grove (Cunegonde), Becca Hart (Paquette), Melissa Hart (Old Lady), Ben Johnson (Candide), Suzie Juul (Cunegonde), Dominique Wooten (Maximillian). Ensemble: Corey deDanann, Sarah DeYong, Becca Hart, John Humphrey, Brian Lenz, Riley McNutt, C. Ryan Shipley, Kara Taft.