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.