Chicago Theatre Review
The Best of All Possible Worlds
Candide – Music Theatre Works
This visually captivating and audibly stunning production of Leonard Bernstein’s operatic treatment of Voltaire’s classic satire of 18th century optimism may be one of Music Theater Works’ (formerly Light Opera Works) best of all possible musicals. One would have to be made of stone not to laugh at some of the bawdy hilarity and cleverness of this production or be impressed by the sheer talent and musicality found in this 1999 version from London’s Royal National Theatre. Staged by Rudy Hogenmiller, musically directed and conducted by Roger Bingaman and choreographed by Clayton Cross, this production is sheer magic. But the problems, as ever, lie with the piece, itself.
This musical, which is far more akin to being called a comic operetta, originated in 1956. It put the name of Leonard Bernstein on the lips of every musical theatre aficionado, preceding his later, more popular works, like “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and his magnum opus, “West Side Story.” Based upon Voltaire’s 1759 novella, the musical’s original script was written by Lillian Hellman. In 1974, a markedly different version of the piece featured a book by Hugh Wheeler, which was far closer to Voltaire’s story. Because its book has always been considered the show’s biggest problem, the years have seen script revisions attributed to John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John Caird and even Bernstein, himself. In addition, there has been a large variety of musical contributions over the decades, with lyric changes to some of the songs remaining constant in each version of the musical.
But, with the exception of the more streamlined 1974 Broadway edition, in which many of the songs were simply eliminated, another problem for most theatergoers is the long-windedness of this work. The story begins with Voltaire introducing the principal characters of his story. We meet Dr. Pangloss, the Westphalian court tutor, who has the responsibility of teaching philosophy to his young charges, the optimistic ideal that this is the best of all possible worlds, regardless of what may befall them or whom they may encounter. His students include Candide, the Baron’s illegitimate nephew; the Baron’s beautiful daughter, Cunegonde; his vain, self-obsessed son, Maximillian; and Paquette, a very obliging servant woman. Candide and Cunegonda fall in love, but throughout an endless series of subsequent conflicts, calamities and tragic occurrences, the lovers meet, are torn apart, reunite and are again separated. We’re introduced to a number of supporting characters, the most memorable being the Old Lady (who has only one buttock). Suffice it to say that this three-hour re-creation of London’s 1999 adaptation is sometimes delightful and funny, sometimes simply cloying and tedious, but always beautifully staged, sung and danced.
Every single performer in this brilliant production is stellar. Each ensemble member plays a multitude of roles that involve intricate choreography, demanding vocal talents and lightning fast costume changes. Russell Alan Rowe, as Martin, the cynical townsperson, Raymond Goodall, as Cacambo, Candide’s friend and servant particularly stand out. A familiar face from many Light Opera Works’ productions, Rick Rapp shows off his versatility and vocal talents as the Baron, the Dutch Minister, Don Issacar and the King of Eldorado.
As Cunegonde, one of musical theatre’s most vocally demanding and challenging roles, Cecilia Iole effortlessly sails through this difficult Bernstein score, particularly exciting and playful during her schizophrenic aria “Glitter and Be Gay.” Handsome Ben Barker is all wide-eyed innocence and earnest devotion in the role of Candide, his strong tenor voice particularly moving in the stirring, “It Must Be Me,” “Nothing More Than This” and the show’s magnificent finale, “Make Our Garden Grow.” Both actors nicely complement each other, making us really care about their plight amidst all the silliness that surrounds them.
Talented Equity guest artist Gary Alexander, who has become a much-welcome face at ShawChicago, plays the tireless, dual narrative roles of Voltaire and Dr. Pangloss with panache and authority. But, not only are his two characterizations filled with fun and youthful authority, Mr. Alexander demonstrates his own splendid, well-trained vocal skills. Billy Dawson has a field day as Cunegonde’s snobby, egotistical brother Maximilian and Emily Barnash, a bit too young for the role, portrays the sassy but nameless Old Lady. She’s a vocal talent who’s only been recently seen performing with this company, but one would hope to find her on stages around Chicago from now on. She easily masters her broad humor and thick dialects, particularly in the show stopping production number, “I am Easily Assimilated.” Abby Murray Vachon does well in the featured role of Paquette, especially making the most of her musical soliloquy, “What’s the Use.”
In addition to Hogenmiller’s spot-on direction and Bingaman’s brilliant musical guidance, including leading his gifted 22-member pit orchestra, kudos go to Clayton Cross for his intricate, stylish choreography, Adam Veness for his inventive, very theatrical scenic design, Alice Salazar’s fashionable wigs and hair and Alexa Weinzierl for her amazing profusion of whimsical and anachronistic costumes. All-in-all this adaptation of a challenging, seldom-produced American classic, that borders on operetta, is a musical delight. Despite its length and episodic structure there’s much to enjoy in this Best of All Possible Worlds.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 3-11 by Music Theater Works at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-920-5360 or by going to www.MusicTheaterWorks.com.
Additional information about this other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.