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New York City Opera: Candide

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

One can't imagine that, while preparing Candide for its 1956 Broadway premiere, its creators - composer Leonard Bernstein, librettist Lillian Hellman, and lyricists Richard Wilbur, John La Touche, and Dorothy Parker - foresaw decades of rewrites and restagings constantly redefining the essence of the show. After all, getting things right the first time is hard enough, and by many accounts Candide wasn't right then. Almost 50 years on, it's still not right.

At least, that is, judging by the version being presented by New York City Opera through March 19. It's a revival of the company's 1982 mounting, which was directed by Hal Prince, who's still generally credited with resuscitating Candide with a landmark environmental staging that arrived on Broadway in 1974 and convinced many that the show's full potential had not yet been unlocked. (The original production played only 73 performances.)

Were it not for Prince's production - which sported a new book by Hugh Wheeler and additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim - chances are that the show would remain a curiosity, better known for its superb original cast recording than any actual productions. The 1974 Candide was essentially the basis for this one ("The Opera House Version"), though Candide's book and score has continued to be reconceived and reconfigured (including by Bernstein himself, who termed his efforts "The Final Revised Version") in the years since.

But even with some vague sense of consistency, Candide itself is still little more than a problematic fascination, mostly centered around its glorious score, which kicks off with a deservedly famous overture and only gets better. The ravishing "Jewel Song" parody "Glitter and Be Gay," the infectious scene-setter "The Best of All Possible Worlds," the rollicking and lilting "What's the Use?", the melodious lament "It Must Be So," and the stirring choral finale "Make Our Garden Grow" are just a few of the almost too-rich pleasures on offer.

The book, however, does the score few favors. Yes, there's a story: The youthful bastard Candide is banished from Westphalia for his dalliances with the beautiful Cunegonde and travels the world, only to discover that the myopically optimistic lessons he's spent his life learning have little to do with the way the world actually works. But though Wheeler's libretto captures the general, colorful spirit of Voltaire's source novella, it's mostly a confused, listless series of vignettes that tie together the songs; it's not really a book. That Voltaire himself now narrates the action - he didn't originally - most clearly defines the show's dramatic bankruptcy.

It's this production's good fortune that Voltaire (as well as Candide's teacher, Dr. Pangloss, and a host of other characters) is played by Broadway veteran John Cullum, whose robust baritone and off-handed sense of humor help him gracefully carry scenes that would leave professional bodybuilders quaking with trepidation. If Cullum sings in lower keys than the originals, and if he occasionally stumbles on his lines, he's a strong central presence around whom the rest of the cast can revolve. This helps mask most of the production's deficiencies; the better-than-competent nature of the rest of the cast also doesn't hurt.

Of course there's Judy Kaye, ideally cast as the saucy Old Lady who comes to attend Cunegonde; her voice is, as usual, exquisite, and she spices up all her numbers (particularly her seductive first-act solo, "I Am Easily Assimilated") with ample doses of her own special Kayeanne pepper. Keith Jameson is a nicely juvenile yet rich-voiced Candide and Anna Christy is a sparkling and clear-voiced Cunegonde, though both could have much more fun with their roles. Kyle Pfortmiller and Stacey Logan miss a fair amount of comedy with comic supporting characters Maximillian and Paquette, though featured ensemble member Eric Michael Gillett is great at picking up the slack.

But except for Kaye, no one brings much energy to the proceedings. Arthur Masella's ponderous recreation of Prince's direction doesn't help, nor do Patricia Birch's obligatory dances, Clarke Dunham's nice-looking but dark story-theatre sets, Ken Billington's rather gloomy lighting, or Judith Dolan's drably colorful costumes. There are surprisingly few laughs - and not much more potential for them - on offer here, and if Candide needs one thing (besides a strong orchestra, which it has here under George Manahan's baton), it's laughs.

In that regard, I preferred the Lonny Price-staged New York Philharmonic concert last summer. Yes, it futzed with the book and score, often unnecessarily, but it was cast well (with Paul Groves as Candide and Kristin Chenoweth as Cunegonde) and better captured the piece's light, playful nature than happens here.

This Candide, with the exception of the first-act auto-da-fé scene, is never a trial, but you're left with an appreciation for nothing other than the score. But can that ever really be enough? Chances are, we'll never see a final, successful Candide; Bernstein didn't. He left behind a work that can enchant, beguile, and tantalize, but that - despite all that ravishing music - will likely never be more than a work in progress.

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New York City Opera
Candide
Through March 19
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, 63rd Street and Columbus
Tickets online: Ticketmaster