No matter who's at the helm, the line on Leonard Bernstein's Broadway operetta remains the same: Great score, shame about the show.

No matter who’s at the helm, the line on Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway operetta remains the same: Great score, shame about the show. Enter director Robert Carsen and dramaturg Ian Burton, the latest creative team out to solve the problems of “Candide” via rewrites. The good news is that their production — seen previously in Paris and Milan — restores satire to the show. The bad news is they’re so pleased with the result they haven’t bothered to do much else.

Everything is made abundantly clear in the opening credits. Yes, you read that correctly — the stage is framed by a giant 1950s TV onto which Carsen projects movie-style credits complete with an animated Voltaire proffering a sly wink. Cut to the rhythmic snap of the helter-skelter overture, Carsen offers late-’50s “Mad Men”-style imagery of sharp-suited husbands and preening, house-proud wives. Or, as this production makes plain, White House-proud.

No longer are we in Westphalia, we’re in America or, rather, the satirical land of West Failure, complete with a walk-on role for pill-box-hatted Jackie O. Satirizing the values of the Enlightenment — in which “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds” — Carsen makes it specific by drafting in any number of real-life figures in a wearying succession of visual and conceptual puns.

As soon as brunette Cunegonde (Anna Christy, replacing originally announced star Kristin Chenoweth) gets to Paris, she turns into a blonde, pouting Marilyn Monroe. And for reasons never properly explained, her brother Maximilian turns up in the later action dressed as Josephine, Jack Lemmon’s alter-ego from “Some Like It Hot” (but carrying a saxophone, which was Tony Curtis’ instrument). A gag about a sex-change is added in order to run the “Nobody’s perfect” line.

Or take the scene where kings adrift in wealth are turned into Bush, Blair, Putin, Chirac and Berlusconi, lounging in swimming costumes on airbeds afloat on a sea of oil. Michael Levine’s design for this is witty — shards of bright red oil cans poke up from a black sea like shark-fins — but, as is often the case in this production, the initial image overpowers the scene. Seeing world leaders half-naked is so diverting that the dialogue goes for nothing.

With its heavily signposted gags about American values spilling into the present, the production cannot be accused of failing to achieve consistency. Which, over three lumbering hours, is precisely the problem. With everything turned into a foregone conclusion, drama disappears.

Even with Rob Ashford’s energetic choreography lifting the mood, tension evaporates because Carsen finds no way to build energy from one scene to another. There are countless moments of dead stage time between scenes.

Doubling as bewigged Voltaire and modern-dress Pangloss, Alex Jennings does drollery like no other actor — as he drops his voice you can almost hear his raised eyebrow. But even he winds up with a one-note performance that slows the pace still further.

Toby Spence’s beautifully unforced operatic tenor sound and good looks make him ideal casting for hope-filled Candide. But Levine’s sets make bold pictorial statements on one of London’s largest stages at the expense of theatrically dynamic acting areas. Leaving Spence and Christy’s Cunegonde marooned throughout and not giving them detailed direction means neither makes any emotional impact.

They should take a leaf out of Beverley Klein’s book. Reprising her role of the Old Lady from the National Theater’s 1999 production, she alone seems to realize she’s in a comedy that, given precision and theatrical know-how, could actually be funny. Her ripely detailed, full-blooded performance illustrates what’s missing elsewhere.

Even when staging the joyous finale “Make Our Garden Grow,” Carsen cannot resist one last (over)statement. Singing in ecstatic harmony, the entire company is directed to clamber clumsily out of the TV frame. All eyes then go to film footage of contemporary ruination of the planet. It’s all in keeping with the thumpingly ironic tone, but to yank focus away from one of the greatest emotional climaxes in the entire musical theater canon is willful to the point of smugness.


The Coliseum, London; 2,358 seats; £83 $165 top


An English National Opera, Theatre du Chatelet, Teatro alla Scala, Milan presentation of an operetta in two acts with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Richard Wilbur, additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Bernstein, book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler, freely adapted by Robert Carsen and Ian Burton. Directed by Carsen. Conductor, Rumon Gamba. Choreography, Rob Ashford.


Sets, Michael Levine; costumes, Buki Shiff; lighting, Carsen, Peter Van Praet; sound, Nick Lidster; orchestrations, Bernstein, Hershy Kay; additional orchestrations, John Mauceri; production stage manager, Phillip Turner. Opened, review June 25, 2008. Running time: 3 HOURS.


Candide - Toby Spence Cunegonde - Anna Christy/Marnie Breckenridge Voltaire, Doctor Pangloss, Martin - Alex Jennings Old Woman - Beverley Klein Paquette - Mairead Buicke Grand Inquisitor, Captain, Governor, Vanderdendur - Bonaventura Bottone Maximilian - Mark Stone Cacambo - Ferlyn Brass
With: Adrian Brand, Simon Butteriss, Graeme Danby, Thierry Laurion, Claire Mitcher, Philip Sheffield.
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