Candide is Happiness Indeed at the 5th Avenue Theatre
Also see David's review of Nietzsche! The Musical!
Though a totally satisfying production of Leonard Bernstein's famous and famously problematic musical Candide may be well-nigh impossible, it is a pleasure to report that the 5th Avenue Theatre's production, using John Caird's 1999 adaptation (itself based on Hugh Wheeler's goofier mid 1970s take on the Voltaire tale, in turn based on Lillian Hellman's unsatisfying original libretto) offers a thrillingly sung, admirably acted, and visually voluptuous evening of delights, which, despite some tedious stretches in act two, can be considered a notable success, and the best directorial work by 5th Avenue artistic director David Armstrong to date. It is a fitting centerpiece of Seattle's ongoing Bernstein celebration.
This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink version of Candide seemingly includes nearly all the music ever heard in any version of the show, and lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John LaTouche, Lillian Hellman, and Bernstein himself, who all came to the project at different points from its initial 1956 production through the many subsequent years of revisions. In all versions, a poor but earnest naïf Candide, subscribing to his trusted teacher Dr. Pangloss's theory that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, learns otherwise, as he, his lifelong love Cunegonde and a slew of friends and foes travel the world, facing death and disease, knowing wealth and poverty, and finally ending up on a simple farm, as Candide has always wanted to grow things.
Armstrong's stunningly well selected cast is headed up by David Pichette as Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss, and Pichette's work here is a highlight in a long line of distinctive performances in his long career in Seattle, as well as one of his most adroit and relaxed in a musical. The show is carried, however, by the perfectly pitched central performances of Stanley Bahorek as Candide and Laura Griffith as Cunegonde. Bahorek develops his Candide carefully from childlike innocent to battered victim of the world's injustices, and sings with astounding vocal power and purity, nowhere more than in his moving delivery of "Candide's Lament." Griffith grows her Cunegonde from flippant, spoiled schoolgirl to weary old whore, and brings down the house with her performance of Bernstein's celebrated aria "Glitter and Be Gay." The pair also ignite their duets "Oh Happy Pair" and "You Were Dead, You Know." If they weren't so good they might have had difficulty keeping Anne Allgood's Old Lady from stealing more of the show than she all ready manages to do. With an accent that starts with a dash of Maria Ouspenskaya and has a soupçon of Cloris Leachman's Frau Blucher, and a few dashes of Dietrich and a Gabor sister or two, the gifted comedienne rules the stage in both a lengthy monologue describing how she came to have but one buttock, as well as putting across the spirited "I Am Easily Assimilated" with unbridled panache.
Dashing Mike McGowan is all you could ask for as the hedonistic Maximillian, and Billie Wildrick cavorts deliciously as the amply endowed serving maid Paquette (though in this adaptation, both characters, especially Miss Wildrick's, disappear for too much of the evening). Other notables are Allen Fitzpatrick's deliciously sour take on the pessimist Martin; Brandon O'Neill, as goofily charming as all get out as Candide's amigo Cacambo; and Eric Polani Jensen as the mega-mustachioed Governor, shining on his duet "My Love" with Griffith's Cunegonde. Such stalwart and familiar musical comedy talents as Timothy McCuen Piggee, Mary Jo DuGaw, Greg McCormick Allen, Karen Skrinde and Jadd Davis head up the excellent ensemble, a good thing considering how much featured ensemble work Candide allows
Huzzahs to Musical Director/Conductor who elicits a perfect balance between the vocally robust cast and a big, bold orchestra. Matthew Smucker's delicious, abstract scenic design take us around the world in eighty ways, working beautifully with Tom Sturge's rich lighting design and Lynda L. Salsbury's gorgeous, and deliciously anachronistic costume designs.
The first act of this Candide totally transported me, the second less so, due to tonal issues with the book and perhaps a bit too much of the Bernstein score, which, rich feast that it is, does end up leaving you a bit overstuffed. But any show that ends with such a wondrous choral finale as "Make Our Garden Grow" can be forgiven its excesses. Catch this one while you can, folks, as this kind of a musical gift is about as rare as an old lady with one buttock.
Candide runs now through June 13 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. Tickets: (888) 584-4849, www.5thavenue.org and seattlecelebratesbernstein.org.
See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.