The story's source is Voltaire's satire (Hugh Wheeler adapted the book for stage) which finds Candide (Julian Whitley) leaving his homeland, Westphalia, in a determined search for his true love, Cunegonde (McCaela Donovan). He travels to Lisbon during this time of the Spanish Inquisition and a war. The Professor of Philosophy, influential Dr. Pangloss (Ben Rosenblatt), unfailingly optimistic, is not shy with advice and Candide buys into the notion that this is the best of all possible worlds. Pangloss, by the way, does not conceal his sexual zeal for Paquette (Becky Webber). The title character, during the second act, begins to accept life more for what it actually offersa reality check, if you will.
The woman who oftentimes steals the show is actress Julia Broder playing The Old Woman. She retains but one buttock and makes mention of the condition. The Old Woman is comic, sly and smart. Listen for "I Am Easily Assimilated" near the end of the first act.
McCaela Donovan, as Cunegonde, demonstrates a sweet, on-pitch voice. She shines on "Glitter and Be Gay," a solo; with Whitley on "Oh Happy We" and with everyone on the final production number, "Make Our Garden Grow." A lovely, charming musical comedy performer, her acting proficiency matches her trained voice.
Whitley, the leading man, has been trained to sing opera. His strong and clear voice is surely an asset within that particular genre. His vocals, given the context of Candide, however, are a bit overbearing. That this production utilizes ceiling microphones works against Whitley whose voice, for this production, needs to be smaller. Candide, the man, is far from a matinee idol sort. Whitley personifies that aspect of the character but the performer's vocal presentation, given the current role, is not ideal.
Ralph Petillo directs this presentation and he deserves much applause. Working with more than twenty actors, some of whom attend Brandeis University and others who are summer apprentices at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Petillo allows them the freedom to jump, spin, dance, embrace and exude spirit for more than two hours. Rachael Plaine, as Dance Consultant, should also be cited with praise. The production showcases the abilities of Musical Director Michael Stern and Accompanist Jae Han, the two pianists who sit on either side of the stage and deliver Leonard Bernstein's compositions. Stern also appears on stage as The Governor.
Set Designer Erin Kiernan furnishes what could be deemed a playground of attached wooden boards and pipes. This is colorful, delightful, jaunty, and perfectly sets the scene. Faced with the task of finding more than one costume for many of the performers, Jessica Risser-Milne comes up with terrific, imaginative wardrobe choices.
There are disappointing accounts regarding the original Broadway production of Candide in 1956. The vivacious rendering at the Unicorn is just the opposite: mobile, eager and a great deal of fun.
Candidecontinues at the Unicorn Theater as part of the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, through August 15th. For tickets, call (413) 298-5576 or visit berkshiretheatre.org.
- Fred Sokol