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A CurtainUp Review

All is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds. — the famous Pangloss philosophy reprised thoughout this operatic musical based on Voltaire's famous novelette.
Jay Armstrong Johnson and Linda Lavin (Photo: Sarah Shatz)
A chance to once again experience Leonard Bernstein's brilliant score for the operatic musical Candide as part of a fully staged production is always welcome. This is especially true for the production currently at the revived New York City Opera's new home at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall at a time when New Yorkers are sorely in need of something to support Dr. Pangloss's optimistic mantra that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

It may not be the best of all possible worlds politically speaking, but Harold Prince's latest staging of Candide is indeed good news for all who appreciate Leonard Bernstein's brilliant merger of opera and musical theater. It not only brings Candide back to New York for the first time since a 1999 Broadway revival, also directed by Mr. Prince, but also continues the New York City Opera's comeback at the beautiful Rose Concert Hall (home to Jazz at Lincoln Center).

The New City Opera's climb back from bankruptcy in its new home also makes the closing of the DiCapo Opera Theatre, on Manhattan's upper East Side, less painful. That's because Michael Capasso, the founder of that little jewelbox company, is the resucitated NYCO's artistic director. Given his first season's scheduling, Mr. Capasso is once again displaying his knack for pleasing audiences with a mix of rarely heard opera works and operatic musical theater works. (some in the latter category given brief new life at the now defunct DiCapo Theater were Street Scene , The Consul, Passion, and last before the company's shuttering, A Most Happy Fella).

Though the Rose Concert Hall, with its 3-tiered balconies surrounding the orchestra, is much bigger than Capasso's below ground level 500-seat venue of a church, it's still not as dauntingly huge as the homes of other American opera companies. Fortunately the new NYCO has been blessed with the resources to mount Candide with splendidly varied scenery and costumes, and to assemble a starry cast to make the most of Bernstein's delicious send-ups of musical styles.

Though trimmed and fine tuned here and there, Mr. Prince's latest production of Candide is more a freshening up than a completely new take. All the best elements of his successful 1982 production for the City Opera are firmly in place — enough so for NYCO to once again represent the best of all musical theater worlds.

To make it all work Prince has enlisted the original City Opera's scenic and costume designers, Clarke Dunham and Judith Dolan to transform the Rose Theater into the colorful world of Candide's picaresque encounters with less than "best of all possible worlds" situations, as narrated by a character called Dr. Voltaire. And so, the bottom line on the looks of this production: First rate!

Candide and Cunegunde's adventures between being separated and reunited are chockablock with color. Two curved staircases lead two effectively used balcony settings, and a variety of rolled on and dropped down scenic props include a tapestry and stained glass panel musically activated by ensemble members mounted on ladders. Georgina Eberhards's wigs and Ms. Dolan's rich arrai of costumes along with Georgina's Eberhard's wigs help the cast navigate the many characters most of them portray.

First rate is also the bottom line for the cast. Though only Cunegonde and Maximilian are played by opera singers, the theater thespians who dominate the leading characters are all seasoned actors. They handle the vocal as well as acting demands of their roles with unfailing aplomb.

Musical theater veteran Gregg Edelman morphs into his multiple roles (chiefly the narrating Voltaire and Dr. Pangloss) with amazing speed. He's riotously funny without going too over the top on the shtick. He also happens to sing extremely well. Chip Zien and Brooks Ashmanskas who play the various other comic parts are also hilarious, and again refrain from letting the shtick from getting out of hand.

Of the two romantic leads, opera coloratura Meghan Picerno is unquestionably this production's vocal star. Her trills and nuanced delivery make for a truly thrilling "Glitter and Be Gay."

While Jay Armstrong Johnson, most recently one of the sailors in the Broadway revival of On the Town , may not have quite as powerful a voice as Picerno's Cunegonde, his Candide also charms. The two have good chemistry, especially in the delightful "Make Our Garden Grow" finale. Though Linda Lavin doesn't get to sing much, she's at her as usual scene stealing best as the old lady with the missing buttock.

Even Bernstein's brilliant music can't make the titular character's story less of a take on Voltaire's long-ago novella than can't avoid its vaudevillian silliness. Boiled down to a double tweet, Cunegonde's love for her bastard cousin Candide leads to his exile from Germany's Westphalia, and a disaster riddled globe spanning road trip. Cunegonde also doesn't survive the separation without assaults on her purity.

Choreographer Patricia Birch contributes to the fun of the traumas experienced by the star crossed lovers, with a memorable "Auto Da Fe" number. And of course, despite all the lovers' travails, Dr. Pangloss's much challenged mantra prevails for a happy ending.

Even at Candide's most vaudevillian silliness, nothing can spoil the glory of Bernstein's magnificent music, conducted by Charles Prince, the director's son. Too bad the production has such a short run. Fortunately another promising return to City Opera's former glories is on the horizon with the New York premiere of the operatic adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels In America next June.

A History of Candide's Long and Varied Journey from Page to Stage

For those not familiar with this near-legendary musical's lengthy odyssey to find the right environment for its beloved score, and less beloved book, here's a capsule history:
1759: Voltaire's novella Candide was published.

1762: Candide is put on the Vatican's index of forbidden books, burned in Geneva and banned in Paris.

1956. Leonard Bernstein's musical adaptation had its premiere at Broadway's Martin Beck Theater with a book by Lillian Hellman. Hellman had better luck with her own plays (see our review of her own hit play's recent revival The Little Foxes and her book is credited with sinking this production after just 73 performances. In spite of this the cast album has become an enduring collectible.

1973: Harold Prince refurbished the show with a new book by Hugh Wheeler, choreography by Patricia Birch and additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim ("Life Is Happiness Indeed". This much smaller, shorter in-the-round production was a sell-out at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from which it moved to further success (740 performancs) at the Broadway Theater.

1982: Same director, choreographer, plus the addition of several of the current production's creatives"for an expanded Opera version at the New York City Opera. In 1989, yet another version, this time directed by Jonathan Miller and John Wells, was presented by the Scottish Opera in Glasgow. This served as the launching pad for a concert presentation of Bernstein's final revision of the score (available as a recording and on videotape).

1994: A critically successful presentation of the New York City Opera version at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

April 19, 1997: The opening Broadway revival (our review with a list of all the songs )

Other productions reviewed at Curtainup:
Candide in Philadelphia-2007 small scale in the round production at the Arden.
Candide in DCin 2010
Candide in London-in 2013 at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

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Book: Hugh Wheeler
Based on the satire by Voltaire
Lyrics: Richard Wilbur
Additional Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman and Leonard Bernstein
Choreographer: Patricia Birch
Cast: Stars Gregg Edelman, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Meghan Picerno, Keith Phares, Jessica Tyler Wright; featuring Chip Zien, Brooks Ashmanskas, Linda Lavin;; plus 28 ensemble members and dancers.
Scenic design: Clarke Dunham
Costumes: Judith Dolan
Lighting: Ken Billington
Sound: Abe Jacob
Wigs and makeup: Georgianna Eberhard
Stage Manager: Valerie K. Wheeler
From 1/06/17 to 1/15/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 1/12 performance

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