Glimmerglass’s ‘Candide’ makes political satire satisfying entertainment
Francesca Zambello demonstrates how a musical whose story is based entirely on politics and philosophy can ‘glitter and be gay’
Leonard Bernstein’s Candide has never been, in any of its many versions, the best of all possible American musicals. The challenges it poses to a production team are simply too many.
Composer Bernstein and playwright Lillian Hellman, who wrote the book for the original production in 1956, saw Voltaire’s attack on the Church and State in mid-18th century France as a perfect vehicle to expose the evils of McCarthyism. Bernstein, and particularly Hellman, had run afoul of the Senator and his henchmen for their leftist politics.
Voltaire’s rollicking satire does indeed offer material to attack all kinds of “isms” and institutions — from the Inquisition and the Church to the privileges of the aristocracy, the prevalence of sexual violence in war, and the philosophy of relentless optimism being peddled by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz in the 18th century. Voltaire took particular exception to Leibniz’s rose-colored view of living in the best of all possible worlds. Candide was meant to take Leibniz down a peg or three.
However, there is far too much plot and far too many political targets in Voltaire’s Candide to stuff into a single musical. It’s an “and then…and then…and then” story that wends its way from Westphalia to Bavaria to Holland to Spain to Montevideo to El Dorado and back to Venice. How does one stage all that? Further, Voltaire’s interest was not character development. It was contemporary politics and philosophy.
Ken Mandelbaum, who wrote about Broadway’s biggest musical flops in his book Not Since Carrie, put his finger on the challenge facing any producer of Candide: “The real problem with Hellman’s book is that Voltaire’s novel is simply unsuited to stage adaptation: it’s a picaresque series of adventures with no real plot which repeats the same philosophical points again and again. There is nothing dramatic about it, and Candide, Cunegonde, and the others were not meant to be ‘real’ people. There is no way to become involved in the plight of the characters, and musicals which prevent such audience identification rarely succeed.”
Hellman’s book was widely viewed as a failure when the show premiered on December 1, 1956, closing after only 73 performances. The only time Candide has been successfully mounted in the United States was in a stripped down version for the Chelsea Theater Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1973. Hugh Wheeler wrote a new book and cut the show to a single act. That production transferred to Broadway and ran for 740 performances.
So the first question to ask of a new production is: How did the director solve the book problem?
The Glimmerglass Festival, outside Cooperstown, New York, is using Wheeler’s version with additional material from John Caird. It’s again in two acts, running about two and three-quarters hours with one intermission. It works pretty well, although the first act is too long and there are obvious places to trim both “plot” and music. Not everything Bernstein wrote is worth hearing. The second act is shorter, more inventively staged (for the adventures in El Dorado and Venice) and more lively, so stick with it. By the end you will have a good time, if not the best of all possible times.
Director Francesca Zambello and set designer James Noone provide a bare stage with a platform across the back, a catwalk, and a winding staircase. A few wooden platforms are rolled on and off to suggest the deck of a boat. Sets don’t change, only props and some drops do. This makes the constant change in setting, as the show moves from country to country, efficient.
Costumes, designed by Jennifer Moeller, are attractively 18th century-ish, except in El Dorado, somewhere deep in the South American jungle. As a land of endless gold and jewels, the set sparkles with gems, and Moeller has designed exotic costumes for the locals — including some suggesting Ziegfeld follies, complete with towering feathered caps.
The lighting of the Venice scene, provided by Mark McCullough, is particularly effective at suggesting Carnival time. His stage picture is worthy of the Venice act in the Tales of Hoffman.
A huge cast of nine principal players and nineteen more in the ensemble (all members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists program) threw themselves into the proceedings with considerable athleticism required by Zambello and choreographer Eric Sean Fogel.
Andrew Stenson was an appropriately naïve, sweet-voiced, slightly goofy Candide, bouncing from calamity to calamity with the barest of resignation. He switched gears for the finale and grew into the leader his group needed to guide them to their garden for a life of less adventure and more honest work. His pleasant, light tenor warmed up during a hot afternoon, and he finished more strongly than he started.
Stenson and his Cunegonde, Kathryn Lewek, didn’t strike many romantic sparks, which is just as well given Cunegonde’s pre-occupation with jewels and riches. Lewek, a bouncy blond, hurled out an often angry Glitter and Be Gay with just a touch of citrus at the top. Her duet with Candide, in which each telegraphs a totally different vision of a life together, was a delight.
The most challenging part in Candide belongs to David Garrison (a member of Actors Equity), who played the wry narrator Voltaire and the dotty Leibniz character, Pangloss. As one or the other, Garrison is constantly on stage. He has so many lines to deliver he might as well just read the 130 pages of the Yale paperback version of Candide — stopping now and then for Bernstein’s music. (Come to think of it, that solves the book problem. Someone ought to try it.)
Garrison is entirely at home on the stage, moving naturally, cocking his head as necessary, directing the action like a conductor. He opened Act Two with the aplomb of a practiced TV weatherman, tracing Candide’s long and circuitous boat trip across the Atlantic, from Cadiz to Montevideo, on a blackboard with chalk. His diction is excellent, and his singing voice is considerably better than a compromised sing-speech. While Garrison didn’t need the help, the lyrics of all the songs were projected in titles above the stage. This was a welcome aid to the audience.
Of the other characters, special notice should be given to Young Artist Matthew Scollin for an appropriately misanthropic, deadpan performance as Martin (the anti-Pangloss), and to Marietta Simpson as the Old Lady with one buttock (a joke that overstays its welcome). Simpson managed just the right combination of Polish, Yiddish, Russian and Spanish for her song I Am Easily Assimilated, one of Candide’s signature numbers.
The hard-working ensemble members play everything from soldiers, prostitutes, peasants and courtiers to Catholic attendees at an auto-da-fe. In El Dorado, in addition to the Ziegfeld girls, two ensemble members played a pair of sheep, chewing their cud and knitting their own red wool before they accompanied Candide from El Dorado back to the Old World. These were some of the many directorial touches that kept the show from sagging.
Conductor Joseph Colaneri led a rapid overture — which has become a staple at pops concerts. He kept the performance moving briskly, as if he was aware that this soufflé could collapse at any time under the weight of its wordy book.
Zambello is to be thanked for not inserting topical political “humor” into the show. There were no Donald Trump jokes and no references to gridlocked Congresses. She played it straight — trusting that the audience would get whatever political message Wheeler, Caird and Voltaire had intended.
As a result, she managed to do what Harold Prince (in the 1997 Broadway flop) and Tyrone Guthrie (in the 1956 original flop) could not — that is, make Candide a satisfying afternoon’s entertainment, if not the wicked satire that Hellman and Bernstein intended.
What: Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, directed by Francesca Zambello
Language: Sung in English with projected text
Performance reviewed: July 19, 2015
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: About two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $10 to $144 (discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Remaining performances: 8 p.m. July 25; 7:30 p.m. July 30, Aug. 6; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 1, 3, 8 and 11