The Royal National Theater’s 1999 version of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide,” revised by John Caird, gets its first American regional production at Philadelphia’s Arden Theater Company. In this version, the gorgeous garden of the Bernstein score has been cultivated with humor and intelligence: no cutesiness, no compromises — it’s long, it’s demanding but it’s fine. And for a production without a set, designer James Kronzer nearly steals the show — with a good deal of competition from a splendid cast and the firm and clever directorial hand of Terry Nolen.
The play is performed in almost on the round, making some of the witty lyrics inaudible when the actors turn away. The stage is treated as a blackboard: Actors using long sticks of chalk draw circles, squares, compass points, announcements, roads. When the scene changes from Europe to South America to El Dorado, the elegantly clad chorus in black cocktail dresses quickly mops away the previous set.
The props are clever but simple: When Cunegonde (Liz Filios), prancing around in her pink high heels, sings her gaudy aria, “Glitter and Be Gay,” a beribboned Fragonard swing descends. Shipwrecks, auto-da-fes, earthquakes, all the disasters nature and Voltaire dreamed up, are conjured with wooden boxes, a swinging lantern, or a few yards of silk. The most minimal of props create one magical and amusing image after another.
In the title role, Ben Dibble’s smoothly straightforward renditions ground the show with a solid center; his Candide is an earnest innocent wandering a wicked world. Mary Martello as the Old Woman is richly comic, especially in her showiest song, “I Am Easily Assimilated.” Christopher Patrick Mullen as company cynic Martin is all twitches and jitters, singing “Words, Words, Words” with excellent Beckettian gloom.
Those who know “Candide” only from the original recording have never heard “The Kings’ Barcarolle,” a hauntingly beautiful, mournful song for six male voices (in which Jeffrey Coon and Mat Burrows are standouts).
Leading the ensemble is the hugely impressive Scott Greer, both as Dr. Pangloss — hilarious in his pompous syllogizing — and as the narrator, Voltaire, who stalks the stage with grandeur and charm, inviting us in on the immense joke of his preposterous story and the even more preposterous universe.