Also see Tim's review of State Fair
So, how is it? It's inventively staged, beautifully sung, and performed with gusto. In short, it's a wonderful production ... in spite of the book. Yet, while the book has its weaknesses, the production's overall excellence makes up for most of them.
Director Terrence Nolen has set his production on a thrust stage, and has used very little scenery except for some boxes that represent chairs, tables and even horses. So how can he represent Candide's journeys from Europe to South America and back again? The answer is surprising: with chalk. The actors use chalk to draw the setting on the floor; when a scene ends, the actors use mops to "clear the stage," as it were. It's a marvelous way to tell the storyeven if you know the plot, you never know what's going to happen next.
Holding it all together is Scott Greer, who brings just the right blend of bombast and wicked charm to the role of Dr. Pangloss, the teacher and philosopher whose belief that this is "the best of all possible worlds" nearly brings about the ruin of his students. As Candide, the most overly optimistic of those students, Ben Dibble is sincere and forthright. As his adventures become and more outlandish, Dibble never becomes cartoonish, always conveying Candide's humanity above all. And soprano Liz Filios is dazzling as Cunegonde; her "Glitter and Be Gay" is both hilarious and thrilling.
The supporting cast members get plenty of chances to shine. Mary Martello is droll as the Old Woman; Jeffrey Coon brings comic zest and a powerful voice to roles that range from a lecherous governor to Cunegonde's mother; and Erin Driscoll is deliciously sultry as the maid Paquette. Also noteworthy are the great vocal mix on ensemble numbers like "What's the Use?" (courtesy of music director Eric Ebbenga) and Rosemarie E. McKelvey's striking, contemporary-styled costumes for the ensemble.
From its exciting overture to its glorious choral conclusion ("Make Our Garden Grow"), Bernstein's score is an invigorating delight, and the lyrics (primarily written by Richard Wilbur) match the music in wit and invention. There are no weak singers in the Arden's cast, but some of the lyrics get lost in the mix due to the thrust staging, which forces the actors to sing parts of the score with their backs to the audience.
Caird's aim in his revision was to return the work to its roots and make it truer to its source, Voltaire's brilliant 18th-century satire. But much of the newly added material merely shows how wise Wheeler was to pare down the story and make it manageable onstage. Caird's version has its share of dull spots: the penultimate sequence, set in Venice, goes on far too long and adds nothing to our understanding of the characters; a sequence in which Candide is inadvertently drafted into the Belgian army does little more than pad the show out to three hours. And the addition of a character from the book, the cynical Martin, provides a great showcase for actor Christopher Patrick Mullen but makes the plot even more convoluted.
Of course, Wheeler and Hellman's versions of Candide were far from perfect too. The music and lyrics of Candide have always been better than the book, which is part of the reason why the show has had such a tumultuous history. But while Caird's book makes some questionable choices, Nolen's production doesn't. From the casting to the singing to the costumes, this is a terrific production of a show that more people should know.
Candide runs through October 19, 2008 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheartre.org or at the box office.