Monday, January 23, 2017

The Best of All Possible Worlds: Candide at the NYC Opera

Linda Lavin in New York City Opera's new production of Candide. (Photo:Tina Fineberg)

There was much upset over the closing of New York City Opera in October 2013 when its last-ditch fundraising efforts failed. (Regrettably, it did not go out in a blaze of glory: its final production, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s contemporary opera Anna Nicole at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, was fairly ridiculous.) But the company returned from the dead last week with an exuberant and often uproarious revival of Candide at Fredrick P. Rose Hall, as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center series. This is the third time Harold Prince has directed the Leonard Bernstein musical, with its Hugh Wheeler book (adapted, of course, from Voltaire’s classic satire) and its lyrics by a variety of distinguished writers: Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche and Bernstein himself. I caught Prince’s first attempt, in 1975, when Eugene and Franne Lee gutted the orchestra of the Broadway Theater to permit a free-roaming playing arena. It got great reviews but I thought the reconstructed space was more interesting than anything that was going on in it. The show was manically overstaged and terminally boisterous, and a production I saw in Stratford, Ontario a couple of years later emulated Prince’s error. Candide had bombed on Broadway in an extravagant (but more conventional) version in 1956, and after two bad experiences with it, I assumed it was unplayable – until Lonny Price staged a concert version that was televised on PBS in 2004. His Candide was scaled way down but visually inventive, and the light touch seemed to free the actors (Kristin Chenoweth and Patti LuPone were in the cast), who performed as if they were guesting on Saturday Night Live.

I didn’t see Prince’s 1997 Broadway revival, but this one has exactly the right glancing satirical tone and a wonderful vaudevillian style, and it’s so brisk that it’s over almost before you know it. (It comes in at two hours and fifteen minutes, including intermission – forty-five minutes shorter than the tedious production Boston’s Huntington Theatre mounted five seasons ago.) Clarke Dunham’s set is awash in levels, and carnival-style painted drops hang from the flies. The company arrives on a cart led by two actors in horse outfits, and Voltaire (Gregg Edelman), standing behind a ticket stall, narrates from a manuscript before shifting into the role of Dr. Pangloss, who philosophizes to his pupils – the aristocratic Cunegonde (Meghan Picerno), her self-adoring brother Maximilian (Keith Phares) and her adopted brother, the archetypal innocent Candide (Jay Armstrong Johnson), a bastard whose social status stands in the way of his marrying his beloved Cunegonde – that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. These four, in addition to Cunegonde’s carnal maid Paquette (Jessica Tyler Wright) and the Old Lady (the incomparable Linda Lavin), who appears later, are the main characters. Voltaire’s answer to Pangloss’ optimism is to have one cataclysmic misfortune after another strike them: war, earthquake, pirates, and the Spanish Inquisition. They’re killed off repeatedly, but the narrative keeps resurrecting them, as they make their way through Europe and eventually to the New World. As they do so, Prince, Dunham, the costume designer Judith Dolan and the wig designer Georgianna Eberhard come up with one splendid visual gag after another. Edelman, who is the best Pangloss I’ve ever seen, wears a long, straight silvery wig as Voltaire; when he tosses it off there’s another one underneath for Pangloss: red, shoulder-length and razor-clipped, as if he’d stepped out of The Three Musketeers. Brooks Ashmaskas has a curled orange wig and matching mustache as Cunegonde’s father, so he looks weirdly like a circus strong man. Sometimes cardboard cut-out set pieces are maneuvered by members of the ensemble, and on two occasions the stage features replicas of stained-glass religious images with holes for actors’ heads to peep through, advent-calendar style. When Candide gets to El Dorado in the second act, more actors appear as sheep and as a lion with a solid-gold mane. (As the lion, Wayne Hu pulls a mock-mournful face that I think is one of the funniest things in the show.)

The entire cast, which also includes Broadway-musical veteran Chip Zien, mugs amiably. Johnson, who was Chip in the recent Broadway revival of On the Town, is ideally cast as Candide. Picerno is an entertainingly Betty Boop-ish Cunegonde; the only time I thought she went over the top was in the flamboyant coloratura aria, “Glitter and Be Gay,” but her vocal rendition was so impressive that it was easy to forgive her misjudgment. Lavin sings “I Am Easily Assimilated” in a preposterous quavery falsetto. Everyone looks to be having a fantastic time, especially with the burlesque-house accents; Zien and Ashmaskas, in a variety of roles, steal scene after scene. These two clowns engage in a merry hambone competition when they play a rich Jew and the Inquisitor, both of whom claim Cunegonde as their mistress. Patricia Birch, who collaborated with Prince on the 1975 production, adds a little choreography for embroidery.

As might be expected from the New York City Opera, the music is both rousingly and beautifully sung. Bernstein’s score seems to grow more pleasurable with the passing years. (Only the “El Dorado” number feels somewhat worn.) He saved the best for last: the finale, “Make Our Garden Grow,” with its complex harmonies, is thrilling. Prince stages it very simply, with the entire ensemble – I counted thirty-four – filling every nook of Dunham’s set, facing the audience and singing their hearts out. It’s a glowing ending.  

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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