nytheatre.com review by Daniel Kelley
April 9, 2008
If there is one reason to see Bernstein's Candide now being revived by New York City Opera (and there are many), it's for the finale. The often-performed "Make Our Garden Grow" starts out with principals singing, the orchestra playing softly underneath. The orchestra and principals begin to grow slowly towards a climax. Then suddenly, the orchestra drops out all together, and it is up to the ensemble—the chorus and principals—to "bring it home," as it were. If at any point during this production one were to wonder "Why do this musical theatre piece in an opera house?" that reservation vanishes as the might of the New York City Opera Chorus fills the hall and knocks the finale out of the park.
Leonard Bernstein's Candide, based on the novella by Voltaire, is the story of the young lad Candide, who lives an idyllic existence as the adopted son of a baron in the country of Westphalia. He is taught that this is the best of all possible worlds, and as a result of that, everything that happens in this world is for the best of all possible reasons. Soon after we are introduced to this philosophy, however, Candide's life takes a turn for the worse, when he is thrown out of the Baron's castle for his love for the Baron's virginal daughter Cunegonde. This is but the first of many trials for Candide, as his optimistic philosophy is tested time and again by the worst horrors of the world: deceit, war, rape, prejudice, torture, starvation, the list goes on. The satirical humor of the piece is derived from Candide's optimism in the face of it all.
The piece is performed as a story within a story, with Voltaire himself narrating. Harold Prince's production takes advantage of this, setting the piece within the framework of a sort of carnival pageant. This concept works well, and is faithful to the antic and tongue-in-cheek nature of the show. This production is now an old warhorse, in its third decade, and yet it manages to remain fresh.
This freshness, though, has as much to do with the current cast, though, as with the production. As the title character, Daniel Reichard (best known for his role in Jersey Boys) has a great handle on Candide's ardent and innocent enthusiasm, even if he is significantly underpowered vocally. As Voltaire, and any number of quirky characters throughout, Richard Kind (most memorable for his recurring role on the TV show Spin City), is obviously having the time of his life. Though he is meant to do a variety of characters throughout the piece, they all end up seeming fairly similar. This is not a problem, however, as Kind's jovial borscht belt persona is suitably hilarious. Lielle Berman has a lovely voice for Cunegonde, but her big show piece aria, "Glitter and be Gay" is mishandled with some distracting stage business of stealing jewels from an onstage pianist. She handles it the best that she can, but it is unfortunate, as she sings the piece beautifully. Judith Blazer is miscast as the Old Lady—this is a part for a big comic personality and Blazer doesn't have the comic chops to pull it off, though she sings well.
What is unique about Bernstein's Candide as a piece of musical theatre is the contradiction at its core. On the one hand, Candide features any number of musical theatre mainstays: big, splashy dance numbers, broad humor, ardent ballads, character songs, and a rousing finish. However, there is also a cynicism and skepticism of unbridled optimism that gives the piece its edge. Much of the humor in Candide comes from Candide and Cunegonde's continued wide-eyed innocence in the face of overwhelmingly horrible experiences. However, if these experiences are not played with a certain level of gravitas, the satirical and biting element of the piece is lost. This is unfortunately the case in the New York City Opera's current revival: much of the horror is reduced to silly stage business, and as a result the humor in the continued optimism of Candide and Cunegonde is lost. The only time when this is not the case is during the powerful "Auto-da-Fe," where the music itself is so dark that the reality of what's happening cannot be avoided. It's unfortunate that this aspect isn't fully explored throughout.
That doesn't mean, however, that you won't have a good time. The music is phenomenal—eclectic, energetic, at times touching, at other times fun-loving—and is conducted with aplomb by George Manahan. While it's unfortunate that the piece's darker side is not explored more fully, this production of Candide is still a fun and strongly cast revival of a classic piece of American musical theatre.