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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Candide
Arden Theatre Company

Also see Tim's review of State Fair

Candide
Ben Dibble, Liz Filios, Scott Greer,
Erin Driscoll and Joel T. Bauer

Leonard Bernstein's Candide is a classic, but it's a show that comes with its share of problems. Most of those problems are related to its book—or, should I say, books. Since its 1956 premiere, which featured a book by Lillian Hellman, there have been several complete overhauls of the script. The book for the 1973 version by Hugh Wheeler has become the accepted standard, but even that version hasn't remained untouched; in 2004, for example, Lonny Price fashioned a gag-filled concert adaptation for a production by the New York Philharmonic. And now the Arden Theatre is presenting the American premiere of an adaptation written by John Caird for a 1999 British production.

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 story—even 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.

Candide
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler
In a new version by John Caird
Lyrics by Richard Wilbur
Additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Music Direction ... Eric Ebbenga
Scenic Design ... James Kronzer
Costume Design ... Rosemarie E. McKelvey
Lighting Design ... Justin Townsend
Sound Design ... Jorge Cousineau
Stage Manager ... Katherine M. Hanley

Cast:
Joel T. Bauer Maximillian
Ben Dibble Candide
Erin Driscoll Paquette
Liz Filios Cunegonde
Nick Gaswirth Vanderdendur/Corporal/King Hermann Augustus
Scott Greer Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss
Mary Martello Old Woman
Christopher Patrick Mullen Martin/Dutch Minister
Richard Ruiz Cacambo
Jeffrey Coon Baroness/Grand Inquisitor/Governor of Montevideo/James the Anabaptist/Charles Edward Stewart/Ensemble
Sorab Wadia Baron/Don Issacar/King of Eldorado/Grand Sultan Achmet/Ensemble
Matthew Joseph Ferraro Portuguese Sailor, Tunisian Captain, Tzar Ivan of All the Russias/Ensemble
Darren Michael Hengst Captain/Surinam Slave/King Stanislaus of Poland
Gabrielle Hurtt Queen of Eldorado/Ensemble
Ensemble: Mat Burrow, Jessica Gruver, Melissa Kolczynski, Kristin Purcell, Marian Sunnergren, Heather Woodward


Photo: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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