It will be 50 years in December 2006 since the original opening night of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” Despite countless subsequent revisions in both traditional musical theater and opera stagings, this dusty jewel of a show continues to delight and dissatisfy in equal measure. Commingling operatic leads with seasoned Broadway performers such as Judy Kaye and John Cullum within a carnival atmosphere of raucous exotica, New York City Opera’s revival of the streamlined Harold Prince production pushes its clownish spirit at the expense of thematic texture. But as a nimble jaunt through an eclectic, still sparkling score, it offers much to savor.
Purists all have vehement opinions about which version of “Candide” works best, and the 1973 reworking developed by Prince and book writer Hugh Wheeler (later further revised) has as many detractors as admirers. Since a fully balanced rendering of the comic operetta based on Voltaire’s satire remains elusive, however, aficionados might do well to share the lesson learned by its eponymous hero, who stops, after a string of disappointments and disasters, looking for meaning in a meaningless world.
With its overplotted, picaresque book, and its saga of war, rape, pillage, inquisition and injustice, not to mention its lofty goals of enlightenment warring with its frivolous, antic heart, “Candide” will probably always be a problematic show. Its characters might make a stop at El Dorado on their frustrated quest for “the best of all possible worlds” (to quote one of the show’s best loved songs), but this is a musical whose riches invariably are tarnished by the awkwardness of Wheeler’s book — or of Lillian Hellman’s before it, if the failure of its debut production is any indication.
Best, then, to renounce the search for perfection and simply soak up the witty lyrics, the irresistibly racy humor and the fleet-footed melodies of the show’s songs, performed here by a robust ensemble cast and an orchestra ably led by City Opera music director George Manahan.
Unenviable as her task might be in following the vocal spryness and impeccable comic timing of Kristen Chenoweth’s Cunegonde in last year’s Lincoln Center concert staging (aired as part of PBS’ “Great Performances” series), lyric soprano Anna Christy makes a likable heroine of the baron’s daughter. Cunegonde echoes the downfall of her idyllic Central European kingdom Westphalia by becoming an international slut, but remains emotionally true to her bastard cousin Candide. Christy delivers signature number “Glitter and Be Gay” with verve, wryly seeking solace for her status as a fallen woman in her love of jeweled accessories.
She is matched with gusto by Keith Jameson’s Candide, who brings a gossamer tenor — most notably on the show’s beautiful closing number, “Make Our Garden Grow” — and an engaging naif persona. Along with Kyle Pfortmiller as the vain Maximilian, Jameson and Christy exhibit the kind of sturdy comic chops that rarely are the domain of opera performers, making them mesh well with Broadway musical recruits like Stacey Logan as saucy servant girl Paquette.
Kaye all but steals the frothy show as the Old Lady. While stage director Arthur Masella often allows the cast too free a hand with the shtick, and the broad buffoonery starts to fray in act two — particularly in the messily staged Turkish casino number “What’s the Use” — Kaye’s Yiddish-accented crone, kvetching about her missing buttock or chronicling her history of degradation, injects a giddy note of wacky dementia that helps smooth the bumps of the book’s lumpy plotting. Her “I Am Easily Assimilated” — backed by a chorus of wizened, sombrero-clad gauchos and assisted by Patricia Birch’s amusing choreography — is a comic high point.
In a curiously low-key perf, Cullum somewhat misses his mark. His Voltaire seems too dry and detached even for a storyteller drolly rolling his eyes about the idealistic fools of his age, while his Pangloss borrows from Ed Sullivan, Groucho Marx, Paul Lynde and W.C. Fields yet remains underwhelming. To be fair, Cullum was affected more than any other cast member on opening night by wild inconsistencies in mike levels and a string of missed sound cues.
For a show that has shuttled back and forth in recent decades between theaters, opera houses and symphony halls, and that mixes performers from different fields, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the more subtle miking generally used in opera is not an entirely smooth fit.
While the elaborately overwrought theatricality of Clarke Dunham’s sets (the show is staged as an 18th-century traveling carnival called Dr. Voltaire’s Freaks and Wonders) and Judith Dolan’s costumes make for a vibrant spectacle, the fragility of “Candide” might remain less apparent in more intimate chamber treatment.