The fever dream that is Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is born again with the reconstituted New York City Opera, along with the happy delirium that is the hallmark of Harold Prince’s revival of this landmark work. Far too much intellectual energy has been spent debating the show’s place in the repertory — is it opera? musical theater? — and in an amusing twist, this production is being presented at Jazz At Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall. Call it what you will, Candide taps gleefully into each of those disparate worlds, offering an effervescent tonic in trying times. It all but fizzes before your eyes.
Like its title character, Candide is a bastard child of Voltaire’s brutally satirical anti-religionist novella. Prince, whose career retrospective Prince Of Broadway arrives in Times Square this summer, first over saw a wholesale revision of the 1956 original production for the Chelsea Theatre Center in 1973, later moving to Broadway. Prince’s expanded version was unveiled by City Opera in 1982, and it became a staple of the People’s Opera, as Fiorello La Guardia called the company. Through it all, the words changed (new book, by Hugh Wheeler; new lyrics, attributed to four authors including Stephen Sondheim) but the Bernstein remained, never to be bettered: From the opening brass fanfare of the best of all possible overtures to the poignant closing chorale, “Make Our Garden Grow,” Candide is the urtext of pastiche, nodding to Mozart, Gilbert and Sullivan, Sigmund Romberg and Kurt Weill while remaining wholly original in its own right.
This is the story of the bastard child Candide, in love with his noble cousin Cunegonde, who have been tutored, along with Cunegonde’s brother Maximillian and their comely servant Paquette, by Dr. Pangloss. He preaches the philosophy that we live in “the best of all possible worlds,” and as such, everything is peachy perfect. A series of increasingly extreme events separates the young lovers and subjects them to ever-worsening tribulations (detailed more explicitly in Voltaire’s 1759 text than they are here) that take them from Westphalia to Portugal, Spain, South America and, finally, home, having learned that labor, not vacant philosophy, gives life meaning.
The production is deftly anchored by Broadway veteran Gregg Edelman, switching wigs now as Voltaire, now Pangloss, among other characters. Jay Armstrong Johnson is an ideally callow yet determined Candide, and equally well-cast are Jessica Tyler Wright as Paquette and Keith Phares as Maximillian. The revelation is Meghan Picerno who handles the musical’s best-known show piece, Cunegonde’s double-edged lament “Glitter And Be Gay,” with sparkling ease for a coloratura’s rollercoaster ride fit to challenge any Queen of the Night.
There’s able assistance in comic roles from Linda Lavin as The Old Lady, as well as Chip Zien and Brooks Ashmankas in assorted roles. Prince’s longtime aide-de-camp, choreographer Patricia Birch, contributes to the elegant segues in a challenging onslaught of crowded scene changes; and Charles Prince, the director’s son, conducts with ear and baton finely attuned to the complicated goings-on. The physical production, rebuilt from scratch after the bankrupt City Opera’s assets were auctioned off, reunites the creative team of Clarke Durham (fun-house sets), Judith Dolan (commedia costumes) and Ken Billington (golden lighting) though I retain a place in the heart for Eugene and Franne Lee’s radically delightful designs for the Chelsea/Broadway productions .
The show has been extended and is all but sold out for the remaining performances. That means you’ll probably have to dig a little to find tickets to this must-see presentation. But that’s what gardens require, right?