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Candide (04/29/1997 - 07/27/1997)


 

New York Daily News: "Candide Still No Can Do"

Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," one of the most glorious scores ever written for Broadway, has been, in effect, orphaned for 40 years. Hal Prince's current production At birth, in 1956, the score was swaddled in a book by Lillian Hellman which, though heavyhanded and humorless, served the music well. She at least gave Voltaire's story of an innocent youth surviving countless horrors, a satire on 18th-century optimism, a coherent narrative.

The musical did not find an audience then but built one through its unsurpassed original cast album.

In 1973, Prince had the happy idea of creating a version that would make the work less imposing. At BAM, the actors cavorted all around the audience. This structureless version, with a book by Hugh Wheeler, moved to Broadway a year later. It demonstrated the theatricality of the score but shortchanged its musical values drastically.

When Prince directed "Candide" for the City Opera in 1982, he retained Wheeler's carnival-style book, which is only marginally funnier than Hellman's and a lot longer.

He has used the same version for this production, but cleaned it up a bit. Actors in horse costume galloping onto the stage now mar only the climax of the brilliant overture rather than the whole thing.

The fine soprano Harolyn Blackwell was so preoccupied with the business Prince gave her in "Glitter and Be Gay" that, the night I saw it, she lost the rhythm.

Prince's premise is that Voltaire set out to entertain his readers, and the musical should do likewise. This is true. Forty years on, however, it is clear that whatever of Voltaire's spirit or wit the musical first captured is in Bernstein's music and the original lyrics, which are ill-served by the Wheeler book.

In this revival, even such stalwarts as Andrea Martin and Mal Z. Lawrence cannot get laughs out of the unfunny material. Nor can Jim Dale, who plays a host of comic roles. Jason Danieley is a properly innocent Candide. Blackwell, of course, sings beautifully as Cunegonde.

The sets and costumes match the outwardly merry but ultimately empty style of the production perfectly. When the final chorus arrives and all the music sounds first-rate in conductor Eric Stern's hands it should be exultant. Here it only brings relief. The unending un-hilarity, is, thank heaven, over and we can go home.


New York Daily News
04/29/1997

New York Post: "A splen-dide 'Candide'"

It dazzles, it soars, it coruscates – it’s one of the great operettas of our time. It’s Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece, musically far finer than his soggily melodic “West Side Story,” and it’s back on Broadway.

It, of course, is the Bernstein-Hugh Wheeler-Richard Wilbur-John La Touche (the latter two with a friendly assist from Stephen Sondheim) musical, “Candide,” starring Jim Dale in a new, definitive staging by Harold Prince. It arrived last night at the Gershwin Theater.

This is either the third or fifth time Prince has staged “Candide” – depending on how you count his ways – but not because he didn’t get it right the first time, but because he has kept on getting it better.

As many know, the original Princeless Broadway production of “Candide” in 1956 was a failure, and it was not a success until 1973 when Prince staged his first “environmental” chamber production for the Chelsea Theater Center in Brooklyn, later expanded for Broadway, with a new book by Wheeler replacing the original unwieldy and unfunny Lillian Hellman version.

This Wheeler concept, which stays surprisingly quite close to its source, the 1759 Voltaire novel, has become the standard, with the original Wilbur and La Touche lyrics being touched up here and there by Sondheim, who has actually added a little extra to this present production.

As with his opera-house stagings in both New York and Chicago, Prince has now returned the show to a proscenium setting, but has done so with an exuberance that perhaps eluded him when he mounted it for New York City Opera.

In any event, this new “Candide” is a joyous experience, an operetta to savor musically (although in this regard the orchestra could be better, audiences having grown accustomed to Philharmonic-grade playing of this score) and a Broadway musical to enjoy irrationally.

Here in a picaresque extravagance are all the travails and travels of Candide and his companions as our hero puts to the test the Leibnitz-inspired optimism about “the best of all possible worlds” given him by his teacher, the crusty Dr. Pangloss, until Candide learns to “cultivate his own garden.”

Voltaire’s satiric bite is gone, but Wheeler’s comedy, made broader and mildly bawdy for Broadway, remains a delight, and with Wilbur’s graceful lyrics, Bernstein’s incandescently eclectic and bubbling music and all the skittish characterizations, the show has become, through Prince’s adroit ministrations, foolproof.

The scenery, as, I think, with all of the Prince versions, is by Clarke Dunham, who has outdone himself by envisaging this new “Candide” as a kind of traveling medicine show. The colorful permanent set, spilling over the proscenium arch into the seating areas, is used as backdrop for a visual procession of decorative schemes and wheezes.

Into this magic pop-up picture book, Judith Dolan’s imaginative costumes practically cascade, and, helping Prince keep the whole thing moving like a whirligig, are Patricia Birch’s dances with seem seamlessly incorporated into the total stage image.

The casting sensibly has a genuine operatic coloratura soprano, Harolyn Blackwell as Cunegonde, who is as charming as she is vocally superlative (I doubt whether the role has ever been sung better), and the other young people, Brent Barrett, Stacey Logan and a strong-voiced and brightly presenced Jason Danieley as Candide himself, make up an excellent quartet.

But the stage emphasis this time is equally on comedy as much as music, and Arte Johnson and Mal Z. Lawrence offer a variety of fine-tuned clown turns, while the show’s star spotlight is actually thrown upon Andrea Martin as Voltaire’s mysterious Old Woman (the one with only one buttock), and, of course, Dale as Dr. Pangloss and others.

The amazing Martin, with her smoky voice and piquant manner, brings her own distinctive sorcery to the role – I’d love to see her as Mme. Armfeldt in “A Little Night Music” – but the staging seems to have been particularly set up for Dale, and Dale delivers the kind of Broadway top-banana pizazz the show hasn’t had before.

Although a surprisingly good team player, Dale remains redolent of the old star-encrusted Broadway, and his style, deft elegance, energy and simple command give the show and ongoing center of gravity (very un-grave gravity, one should add) that it perhaps previously lacked.

In any event – “Candide” is back and better than ever. Here is a musical with – guess what? – music. You’d be a tin-eared fool to miss it.


New York Post
04/30/1997

New York Times: "High-Voltage Voltaire"

Certain forms of exhibitionism are to be encouraged, and Harolyn Blackwell's strutting her impressive set of vocal cords in the new revival of ''Candide,'' which opened last night at the Gershwin Theater, is definitely one of them.

As Cunegonde, the eternally virginal courtesan in Harold Prince's sour, exhaustingly overstaged production of the Leonard Bernstein musical, Ms. Blackwell of course gets the score's flashiest showpiece: the ridiculously, delightfully ornate ''Glitter and Be Gay,'' a sendup of every show-off coloratura aria ever written.

It's a taxing piece, all right, with sung strings of sobs and laughter flying into the outer space of the musical register. Yet Ms. Blackwell, who has starred at the Metropolitan Opera, gives the impression that this is the sort of thing she tears off in the shower on a daily basis. As she punctuates a particularly elaborate series of ''ha's'' by thrusting her jeweled fan toward the audience, the implicit, charmingly arrogant message is, ''Bet you can't do anything like this.''

Yet if Ms. Blackwell gives the deceptive impression that this sort of vocalizing comes as easily as breathing to her, she seems much less at ease with the physical staging that accompanies the song. She's right to be.

Mr. Prince has the not-so-ingenuous Cunegonde, who is ostensibly lamenting her fall from virtue, plucking assorted jeweled accessories off the resplendently dressed organist who appears to be accompanying her. It's a clever, if strained, bit of business (which Mr. Prince has used before), but not half as clever as the music it is meant to set off, and it starts to get in Ms. Blackwell's way.

The soprano and the score emerge as victors in this particular battle, but it's a close call. Other numbers in the musical, an adaptation of Voltaire's iconoclastic philosophical tale, are more obviously casualties of the director's excesses.

For nearly a quarter of a century, Mr. Prince, a legendary showman of the American theater, has enjoyed a reputation as the white knight who saved ''Candide'' from disaster. In its original Broadway incarnation in 1956, directed by Tyrone Guthrie with a book by Lillian Hellman, the show was widely dismissed as tedious and pretentious and ran for only 73 performances.

Still, Bernstein's shimmering, eclectic score (with lyrics by Richard Wilbur, with some additions by John LaTouche and Dorothy Parker) made an impression, and the cast album, featuring Barbara Cook and Roubert Rounseville, became an essential part of any music lover's library.

In the early 1970's, Mr. Prince oversaw a thorough reworking and condensing of the show, with a new, livelier book by Hugh Wheeler, additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and, most crucially, an environmental, fun-house staging that placed the audience in the middle of the action. First seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1973, moving to Broadway the next year, it was frantic, colorful and irreverent, as hip theatrical experiences were largely meant to be in those days.

Mr. Prince revisited ''Candide'' in 1982, with a popular, musically expanded production for the New York City Opera, which adapted the spirit of his 70's hit for the proscenium stage. In this latest version, a production of Livent (U.S.) Inc. (which brought us Mr. Prince's ''Showboat''), he is sticking to the same sensibility, blanketing the Gershwin's stage with eye-popping scenery (by Clarke Dunham), tricks and gimmicks. And what once seemed an act of resuscitation is now beginning to feel closer to suffocation.

The score of ''Candide'' remains absolutely delectable, and the orchestra performs it beautifully under the direction of Eric Stern. Moreover, it not only has in Ms. Blackwell a Cunegonde who happily scales the dangerous peaks of her songs, but an enchanting, honey-voiced Candide in Jason Danieley, who recently shone in ''Floyd Collins.''

Add to this the inestimable comic charm of Andrea Martin, as the long-winded Old Lady who accompanies Candide and Cunegonde through their cataclysmic journeys around the world, and the versatility of Jim Dale, who stars as the show's narrator (Voltaire, of course) and the fatuous Pangloss, the philosophizing pedant who insists that all's for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

Yet the show, which also features Arte Johnson (of ''Laugh In'' fame) and Mal Z. Lawrence in a giddy assortment of supporting roles, seems desperately busy and overpackaged. Mr. Prince has said he took his idea for the production, which presents Candide's wide-eyed wanderings as though it were part of a traveling freak show, from reading that Voltaire had intended his novella to be an impious prank.

But Voltaire's prank was executed with elegance, not a description that comes to mind here. The style of the show is an overblown mixture of cynicism and cuteness, reflected in Mr. Clarke's lurid storybook sets, Judith Dolan's comic-book costumes and Patricia Birch's acrobatic choreography, which this time around lacks precision and briskness.

A few of the scenes, for example the ocean voyage to South America and Ms. Martin's dance with a chorus of elderly Spaniards, are charmingly realized. But many of the others -- like the auto-da-fe scene of the Spanish Inquisition, Mr. Johnson's labored impersonation of a rabbi and a hootchy-kootchy harem vignette -- have a sophomoric vulgarity.

The worst of all this is that it neglects to acknowledge the profound wit of Bernstein's music. The score is in itself an admirable model of how to integrate far-flung cultural influences, from grand opera to a self-described ''Jewish tango,'' into one finely synthesized whole.

Jokey devices like flying artificial falcons and a guru suspended over the audience in a trapeze swing may add spice to what remains a confusing, episodic book. But they don't begin to match the music's finesse and imagination, which simultaneously embraces parody and celebration of the different forms it quotes. The soaring sentimentality of the climactic ''Make Our Garden Grow,'' for example, is sabotaged by having rows of elephantine, greeting-card-ish sunflowers spring up.

Mr. Dale, whose skills as a quick-change character artist are formidable, is as smooth as ever as the evening's host, though he often seems as though he's gone on automatic pilot. Ms. Martin is terrific, however, in a disarmingly warm, wonderfully timed performance that respects the line between comic exaggeration and grotesqueness. (She really deserves a starring vehicle of her own.)

Mr. Danieley and Ms. Blackwell, both in excellent voice, give lovely interpretations that manage to find real, bewildered hearts beneath their characters' cartoon ingenuousness and their deliberately artificial, satiric love songs. When they sing ''Oh Happy We'' or ''You Were Dead You Know,'' you can briefly imagine that ''Candide'' is truly one of the best of all possible musicals, but only if you close your eyes.


New York Times
04/30/1997

Variety: "Candide"

A buoyant pop-up book of a musical, Harold Prince's revival of "Candide" returns one of Broadway's most beloved scores to the theater after worldwide journeys through opera houses and symphony halls. Impeccably sung, lushly designed and staged with a sure hand by Prince --- this is the director's third go-round with Voltaire --- the revival adds some much-needed spirit to Broadway's bedraggled spring lineup.

If the staging occasionally seems to be working too hard, it's most likely the product of the show's legendary weak link --- its book. Confusing at times, a bit lackluster at others, Hugh Wheeler's 1973 book has always done little more than provide eye candy between the remarkable Leonard Bernstein/Richard Wilbur songs (written for the initial 1956 staging). Prince knows to keep things moving at a breathless pace, bouncing from one song to the next on Clarke Dunham's expansive carnival of a set.

Unlike Prince's famed "environmental" production of 1973, which turned an entire theater into the set, the current revival is designed for a proscenium stage (although actors occasionally wander into the front rows of the audience). Whatever circus-like fun is left to '73 is replaced by Dunham's dazzling visual design: elaborately illustrated wooden cut-outs, carnival midway banners, party lights and circus wagons turn the stage into a traveling freak show of 18th-century vintage, with flashes of medieval street fairs, Rousseau's jungles and Renaissance glitter. Judith Dolan's costumes follow a similar, brightly eclectic path.

Bernstein's lovely operetta score --- which kept collaborators coming back after the disastrous 1956 staging (that featured a book, later abandoned, by Lillian Hellman) --- gets a fine treatment here from a cast headed by Jim Dale, with Jason Danieley making a sweet-voiced Candide, opera singer Harolyn Blackwell easily handling the musical's best-known number ("Glitter and Be Gay") and strong support coming from Brent Barrett and Stacey Logan as Candide's sometime companions.

Andrea Martin, although a better singer than might be expected, has a mostly comic role as the unnamed Old Lady who barges into the action, getting much comedic mileage out of an exaggerated Eastern European accent and a lopsided rear end (readers of Voltaire will know immediately why she has only one buttock; others will have to wait until the musical's end). Arte Johnson plays a number of secondary comic roles, usually paired with the more versatile Mal Z. Lawrence.

As with Voltaire's novella, the musical "Candide" has no qualms about gleefully skewering any number of religions, races and nationalities in its depiction of the world's savageries. As Candide and his beloved Cunegonde (Blackwell) make their separate ways through life's cruelties, they hold fast to the epigram of their teacher Dr. Pangloss (Dale) that this is indeed "the best of all possible worlds" --- this despite encounters with war, murder, rape, torture and any number of calamities both natural and man-made. Through it all, they, and the musical, remain uncommonly cheery and mirthful.

If it seems outsized for this musical, the production makes the best of by featuring a large ensemble that gives full-bodied vigor to the rich, melodic score, particularly on such numbers as "Westphalian Chorale" and "Bon Voyage." Danieley and Blackwell meld nicely on their big duets, "Oh Happy We" and "You Were Dead You Know," and the entire company, surrounded by growing sunflowers and bathed (by Ken Billington) in yellow light, ends the show with the optimistic "Make Our Garden Grow." Having traveled its own troubled road since 1956, Bernstein's score has found as good a world as any to make home.


Variety
05/11/1997

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