By Patrick O’Brien
“Perfection is impossible” is, in brief, the moral of Candide, Voltaire’s classic Enlightenment satire. It is also the niggling truth that has attended Leonard Bernstein’s operetta adaptation for 60 years.
In that time, no less than eight wordsmiths — very, very good ones, at that — have tried to emphasize the crazy pace of the hapless Candide’s romp around the world, and Bernstein’s glorious music, while mitigating the fact that the novella isn’t a carefully plotted affair so much as it is an exercise in philosophical skeet shooting. (A plot summary may be read here.) It takes wicked aim, one by one, at every human preoccupation, from church to state and, above all, blind optimism. Or, to quote the Hungarian-Mexican philosopher, stupidity.
So, in the best of all possible worlds, an adaptation of Candide would zip along but hit all it targets perfectly. It would fizz, but be weighty. It would sparkle, but steep itself in darkness. It would have a heart, but also a great big brain.
How does Candide fare in the hands of Music Theatre Works?
Really, about as well as it can.
It’s materially sumptuous, to be sure: a rustic Old World set (by Adam Veness), decadent period costumes (by Alex Weinzierl and Alice Salazar), and a freakin’ twenty-four-piece orchestra (under Roger L. Bingaman’s baton). There’s so much old-school bang for your buck that it almost doesn’t matter that it begins much too slowly. The classic overture is slowed down so Voltaire the narrator (Gary Alexander, who also plays the philosopher/mentor/fool Pangloss) can draw costumes from a trunk and hand them out to the thirty-strong cast. To quote the Polish-Jewish philosopher, when you got it, flaunt it.
And when it glitters, be as gay as you want. This cast certainly does. Ben Barker and Cecilia Iole, respectively as the naive lovers Candide and Cunegonde, are dunderheaded and easily tossed about, but charming and sympathetic, and sing sing sing so well. Iole wraps her strands of pearls around her notoriously tricky centerpiece aria and wrangles it to her will.
As do the comics in their roles; they play it big and archetypal, but they’re Voltairian clowns, so their craziness lands precisely as it should and makes it point. Above all, Emily Barnash as the Old Woman is indomitable even with the handicap of one buttock. (Don’t ask.)
But there may be too much of a good thing here. Sure, some of the nearly 3-hour run time can be attributed to the maneuverings of a large cast and the formal, well, operetta-ish nature of the company. (Formerly known as Light Opera Works, at that.) But as contributing lyricist Dorothy Parker quipped, there may just have been too many geniuses involved, all of whom warrant a chance to shine. And when your roster of lyricists also includes Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur, John Latouche and Stephen Sondheim, cutting songs almost seems unthinkable.
There will presumably be many more attempts to wrangle Candide, but this licensed version — a compromise between Hugh Wheeler’s abjectly comedic script and John Caird’s instinct to restore a great deal of heart and music — will do the trick. It may be something of required viewing for the burgeoning musical theater aficionado, but any chance to hear “Make Our Garden Grow,” especially as fully voiced as it is here — is a chance to jump at. Just to know that for 60, 300 or umpteen years, we can only strive to do honest work by ourselves.
Music Theatre Works presents “Candide” at the Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street, Evanston, through June 11. More information and tickets are available here.