Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's recent review of Parade
The fall 2001 production in the Mainstage Series of the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) is the musical/operetta Candide, based on the 18th century satirical novella by Voltaire. The fine performers, instructors, and staff at CCM prove once again that, in capable hands, even a highly flawed piece can be turned into an entertaining and satisfying experience for theatergoers.
Candide is a frivolous fable that follows the adventures and hardships of four youths in a long ago kingdom. The kind and faithful bastard nobleman Candide, the vain Prince Maximilian, his sister Princess Cunegonde, who longs only to maintain her wealthy lifestyle, and the sexually liberated servant maid Paquette are taught by their "wise" instructor Dr. Pangloss that everything that happens in life is for the best. Events occur that put this imperfect philosophy to the test, as the four youngsters are raped, beaten, forced into slavery or prostitution, and other unfortunate circumstances. And, the story is narrated by none other than Voltaire himself.
The music is by legendary composer Leonard Bernstein and leans more towards classical than musical theater in style. The mostly bright and fanciful songs include "Life Is Happiness Indeed", "Oh Happy We", "Glitter and Be Gay", and "Bon Voyage", as well the glorious anthem that ends the show, "Make Our Garden Grow". While there is no doubting the excellent musical craftsmanship of the compositions, the score is more likely to be admired than adored, especially after only an initial exposure. The lyrics are always appropriate, sometimes purposely silly, and often witty and skillfully provided. The original lyrics are by Richard Wilbur, and for this version they are supplemented by those of Mr. Bernstein, John LaTouche, and Stephen Sondheim.
What keeps Candide from being a fully successful show is the highly problematic book. There is a significant lack of focus in the plot, with the storyline meandering about with little organization and often repetitive in circumstance. The book is highly narrative and little explanation is provided as to the motivation of the characters. Lessons are taught and revealed, but rarely learned. Therefore, when the story's main figures eventually do find happiness, it appears to be the result of dumb luck rather than earned merit. Candide has been revised on numerous occasions since its first production back in 1956. In each new mounting, an attempt to fix the flawed libretto was made, with songs and scenes dropped, added, and rearranged (and lyricists added). In press releases, Director Nick Mangano has stated that the version presented at CCM "exploits the piece's whimsical, irreverent treatment of Voltaire in a highly farcical style". This rendering may indeed be the best of all possible Candides, but it is still lacking in many ways.
However, in spite of this lofty obstacle, CCM still is able to provide a worthy production. Mangano obviously has a strong affection for the piece and possesses a keen understanding of how to best present the material. The staging is fluid and appealing throughout. Highlights in Mr. Mangano's direction include the sinking of the boat in "Bon Voyage" and the sequence on the deserted island. Choreography by Patti James is suitable and appropriately understated. Musical Director and Conductor Roger Grodsky, dressed in a costume befitting the setting and making an initial appearance on stage, admirably leads a fine orchestra of forty-six musicians performing the original lush orchestration.
CCM is also blessed with a seemingly never ending supply of extremely talented young musical theater students and performers and they are put to good use here. As Candide, Nicholas Belton is a likable and believable youth who, though trying to remain true to what he has been taught, continues to question his beliefs along his journey through life. In addition to his fine acting, Mr. Belton's attractive tenor voice is quite reminiscent of that of Jason Danieley, who played the same role in the 1997 Broadway revival. Playing the female lead Cunegonde, Ashley Brown displays impressive vocal range and clarity and provides an expressive portrayal of the fallen royalty. Josh Dazel and Lindsay Pier turn in fine performances as the secondary principals, Maximilian and Paquette. As the Old Lady, Tory Ross demonstrates that she is a truly gifted physical and vocal comedienne, as she has repeatedly shown throughout her CCM career. The most interesting casting is that of Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss. Rather than have a student take on this difficult role, the responsibility has been given to the chairman of CCM's musical theater department, Aubrey Berg. Though he is a questionable legitimate singer, Mr. Berg talk-sings the role with confidence and provides a strong delivery of his material. The thirty-nine on-stage performers do extremely well in multiple roles and demonstrate their varied talents capably.
The wonderful design of Candide is another huge asset to the production. The daunting task of creating sets for the many locales of the show is superbly accomplished by Paul Shortt. The large and attractive pieces always fit the tone of the musical and are colorful and unique. The huge mural seen at the beginning of the show vividly comes to life and is just the start of many other visual delights. The varied costumes are likewise handsome and fit each individual setting well, as provided by Rebecca Senske. Robert Hahn's lighting design is professionally rendered.
Candide is a problematic show due to its dubious book. However, CCM provides its usual knowledgeable and professional guidance and marvelously talented students to overcome the show's weaknesses to present a satisfying theatrical production. Candide ran from November 15 - 20, 2001.