Presented by New York City Opera, casting consultant Mark Simon, C.S.A., at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center (Columbus Avenue at West 63rd Street), NYC, March 8-19.
François Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778) is not the household name he once was, but we could use him now, as always. He was a champion of free speech and free thought, of looking facts in the face. His cynical little parable titled "Candide, or Optimism" relates the disillusionment, through a series of picaresque adventures, of a virtuous young man brought up to believe that "all's for the best in this best of all possible worlds." What makes "Candide" brilliantly comic, what makes it scathing, what makes it "Candide," is the dry, deadpan understatement with which Voltaire tells his tale. But musical theatre is seldom hospitable to understatement. Leonard Bernstein's abundantly melodious music, with graceful and quite Voltairean lyrics by Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, and others, has kept "Candide" the musical (or operetta, if you prefer) alive. But Harold Prince's production, restaged at New York City Opera by Arthur Masella, is dedicated to ponderous overstatement, underlining the infelicities of Hugh Wheeler's book.
Amidst the busy staging and the overacting, Keith Jameson plays Candide with boyish charm, along with mellifluous high notes, and Judy Kaye as the Old Lady enlivens the proceedings with her tango number. But otherwise, there is hardly a truthful or spontaneous moment from beginning to end of this "Candide." Anna Christy as Candide's beloved Cunegonde has the vocal chops for her big coloratura showpiece but, trapped between the book and the direction, she is otherwise unappealing. John Cullum has nothing special to offer as Voltaire (who narrates), Dr. Pangloss (the cockeyed optimist), and several other characters.
Clarke Dunham's lavish scenery, lit by Ken Billington, is excellent on its own terms: platforms, stairs, wagons rolling in and out, cloths falling and rising, all gaily decorated. It's good to hear Bernstein's score played and sung by an opera house orchestra and chorus. But the boorish broadness of Prince's direction only compounds the problems of this problematic classic.