For Prince's 1974 production, he ripped out seats at the Broadway Theater to make room for playing areas around the house. Director L. Walter Stearns has adapted that idea for one of the Theatre Building's black boxes. Placing the six-piece orchestra (huge by off-Loop standards) in the center of the theater, with platforms for the performers surrounding the pit and interspersed through the audience seating, he brings the audience right into the action. The physical distance between performers at opposite sides of the orchestra helps to illuminate the distance between the characters that are geographically separated from each other after their idyllic lives in Voltaire's fictional Westphalia are upended by events and thrust into horrendous travails throughout the world before being harmoniously reunited. The positioning of the orchestra also allows for some interactions between musicians and the castthe trumpeter hands Cunegonde a rose, sheets of music are cast about during a volcano, and the orchestra dons nautical caps during a voyage at seas, for example. These interactions are a perfect match to the piece's unabashedly presentational style.
The 95-minute book serves the purpose of minimizing the time we have to wait between Bernstein's glorious songs, but it makes the story even more of a blur than in the longer version. Perhaps it matters little, as still we get the idea that Candide and his friends are enduring incredible terrors in the supposed "best of all possible worlds" of Voltaire's 18th century. The book provides few changes in tone throughout the piece, and Stearns keeps a suitably goofy and manic pace until the majestic finale "Make Our Garden Grow" wraps it all up.
The production is another landmark for Porchlight. Unless one counts Sweeney Todd, this is Porchlight's first venture into something like opera, but they deliver it like pros. Candide is as demanding vocally and orchestrally as they come, and Music Director Eugene Dizon and cast and orchestra deliver it most satisfyingly. While there's probably no way a six-piece orchestra could put across the famous overture in a way that wouldn't sound thin after years of hearing this number performed in symphony pop concerts, the remainder of the score is quite well served by the instrumentalists and sung beautifully by the vocalists.
Stearns' cast is uniformly strong, starting with Ryan Lanning as Candide. He has a fresh-scrubbed innocent look and perfectly captures the character's naiveté. He has more of a legit voice than opera, but it works just fine in this context. His Cunegonde, Caitlin Collins, nails the challenging operatic demands beautifully, especially in "Glitter and Be Gay." She compares quite favorably to the likes of Kristin Chenoweth, who's made that song her signature number. Collins also puts across the vacuousness of her character charmingly. Porchlight used their one Equity spot to hire David Girolmo as Voltaire/Pangloss, etc. and he has a commanding presence that gets the proceedings underway and convincingly shows us how Pangloss' teachings could have influenced his young students. Kristen Freilich is a hilarious old lady and gives a perfectly accomplished performance. Jeremy Rill, who's won strong notices in larger and darker roles around town, gets to show off some comic skills as the effete Maximillian. The supporting ensemble all impress while playing a variety of characters and executing Andrew Waters' challenging choreography.
In Porchlight's last year at the Theatre Building Chicago before moving to a new home of its own, Stearns has again (as with last season's Nine), found a way to make these unassuming black boxes surprising. Kurt Sharp's scenic design of polished wooden platforms around the orchestra has a slick neutral look that serves the story's variety of locales. It puts the elaborate costumes of Bill Morey in stark relief, with the lighting design by Justin Wardell helping to focus the audience's attention on the appropriate areas of the house.
I hadn't thought Candide was a piece that would have necessarily played to Porchlight's strengths, but they've demonstrated new abilities with this production. They've been turning out a product above typical off-Loop quality. After they move to their new home next year, they may leave the "off-Loop" image behind for good.
Candide will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 7:45 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through November 2nd at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 West Belmont. Tickets may be purchased through the box office (phone 773-327-5252) or through Ticketmaster.