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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Home at last! Candide has returned to Broadway from world-wide detours to venues as varied as Leonard Bernstein's ingenious sendups of musical styles, director Harold Prince's mad mix of comedic talents, Jim Dale's amazing quick character changes and Clarke Dunham's colorful jack-in-the-box picture book book sets. As Stanley turned the stage of the neighboring Circle in the Square into a cathedral of art, so this latest version of Candide has transformed the sides of the Gershwin Theater's orchestra section as well as the stage into "Dr. Voltaire's Freak Show." When the show begins this environment evolves into a constantly changing scenic panorama.
The brilliance of Bernstein's score and the wit of Wilbur's lyrics remains undimmed, from its rich overture to the soaring finale, "Make Our Garden Grow" Bernstein's brilliant spoof of every opera coloratura's tour de force aria, "Glitter and Be Gay," truly glitters as sung by a genuine opera star, Harolyn Blackwell. Jason Danieley's fine tenor voice and considerable charm make for a happily hapless hero to her ever-never virginal heroine, Cunegonde. Clarke Dunham's spectacular sets, rooted in medieval street theater, Commedia del Arte and Shakespeare's Globe Theater, bring a blaze of color and Broadway show pizazz to this latest incarnation of the forty-year-old show--plus not one, but two curved staircases (they're curved and fairly narrow and the actors navigating them deserve a special acrobatic award).
While inspired by Voltaire's famous 1755 novella, the book is primarily a hook on which to hang the delicious music and lyrics with just enough lampoons of religions and race to be true to the original author. If its deeper ironies are here brightened and simplified into the much reprised Voltairian axiom "this is the best of all possible worlds," so what? This is after all a musical comedy and not a philosophy course. Would anyone really prefer to be guided through the Gulliverian trials and tribulations of the guileless Candide by a more authentic and serious "Father of the French Revolution" instead of the dazzlingly versatile Jim Dale? The return of this smooth master of the quick-change persona --here playing both Voltaire and Dr. Pangloss, (plus assorted other characters)-- is cause for rejoicing in and of itself. The journey he leads us through is also considerably enlivened by the wickedly funny comic timing of Andrea Martin as the Old Lady whose missing buttock does not keep her from walking away with some of the funniest bits of business, especially the show-stopping "I'm Easily Assimilated"-- (Maestro Bernstein's parody of his own roots, as per the original manuscript's title, "Old Lady's Jewish Tango").
When you think about the lack of consistently outstanding music, spectacle and charismatic leads of the season's brand-new musicals, director Harold Prince's highly energetic revival is cause for celebration.
Like all the other Broadway musicals (with the exception of Chicago), Candide suffers a few lapses mostly as a result of trying too hard to please too many. This is evident in the occasional excesses of shtick humor by two clowns who wandered into this Freak Show by way of the Borscht Belt (Mal Z. Lawrence) and television (Arte Johnson); also during some surprisingly static moments, maybe because the staging is so continuously in turbo-drive that it is at times too much of a good thing. (Editorial note: This is as good a place as any to pass along a warning from someone who bought tickets for the seating set up on either side of the stage to carry over the the environmental feeling of a previous production. My source's warning that the rear seats give a partially obstructed view was borne out when I saw a last minute group sprint for some empty seats in the orchestra's side sections).
All who have not yet been mentioned--notably Brent Barrett as Maximillian and Stacey Logan as Paquette, the Candide ensemble, Eric Stern and the orchestra, Ken Billington (lighting), Judith Dolan (costumes), Patricia Birch (choreography)--deserve highest praise for their contribution to this revival. My disappointment as I left the theater had less to do with the above described quibbles than the fact that the audience lacked the buzz that usually accompanies a new show. No foot-stomping. Few standing ovations. Since I attended the night after the opening and several of my preview "spies" reported much more energetic houses, this may have been a case of a not uncommon high incidence of theatrical "hangover" a disease common among those easily subdued by less-than-ecstatic reviews by influential critics.
And so, keeping in mind Voltaire's subtitle for his novella, "ou L'Optimisme" I hope that the luscious music and the glitter and gaiety that drives this production will help to keep its enormous new home filled with enough ticket buyers like one of my feedback sources, (who happens to be an opera buff). Her remarks serve as an apt conclusion to this review: "I loved this show --(lest you think her too "highbrow" she also loved The Life) -- and I don't understand why people who go to musicals spend so much time analyzing the book and carping about a few slow moments or off performances. When I go to the opera, I go to hear music I will love and will want to hear again, and for the spectacle. The stories are often silly and overwrought, and the humor ridiculously broad. And even my favorite operas have flat sections and not nearly as many breathtaking solos and duets as this combination operetta and Broadway show."