Candide, an operetta based on the satirical, eighteenth-century novella by Voltaire, seems to be suffering from an identity crisis. Conceived originally by Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman in the 1950s, its first Broadway run was a flop, lasting just 73 performances. It was revived roughly twenty years later with a revised book by Hugh Wheeler and lyrics by Richard Wilbur. The revamped version was much more popular, lasting two years on Broadway. Then, in 1999, John Caird took another stab at a revision, for the Royal National Theatre in London. The production of Candide currently playing at the Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward employs Caird’s version, and perhaps due to all of the changing hands — other contributors along the way include Stephen Sondheim, Dorothy Parker, and John Latouche — it feels a bit schizophrenic: big and buoyant, yet somewhat sloppy and unresolved.
For those who, like me, haven’t read Candide since college, the story revolves around a dewy-eyed, unabashedly optimistic Candide (played with stunning and cherubic naïveté by Andres Ramirez). Despite being the bastard child of a Baron’s sister, Candide is happy as a clam living his innocent life in Westphalia. He’s in love with the Baron’s daughter Cunegonde (the bubbly Angela Jarosz), and eagerly adopts his teacher Pangloss’ (Geoffrey Colton) life philosophy of metaphysico-theologico-cosmologico-panology, aka “optimism.” After Candide gets caught canoodling with Cunegonde, the Baron (Don Hardwick), who would never allow an illegitimate child to marry his daughter, throws him out, and Candide then embarks upon a series of strange adventures that test his cheery outlook on life, including suffering a flogging for heresy in the Spanish Inquisition, being drafted into the army against his will, and getting robbed and cheated and betrayed by those both near and dear to him and total strangers who take advantage of his goodwill. It’s a fairly ridiculous story, and one that could have probably benefited from some edits (the musical is three hours long).
Those who are into theatrical flippancy will love Candide. It harnesses the cartoonish style of over-the-top musicals but with bombastic operatic voices and the vigor of a full, live orchestra. The ensemble cast is on point, the singing is gorgeous, and the set design by Liliana Duque Piñeiro is both understated and magical. The acting meshes well with the play’s spoofiness — with a tendency toward the overstated and hyperbolic — but, depending on your inclinations, can get on your nerves pretty quickly. And the operatic singing rendered it nearly impossible to decipher what the actual lyrics were, which made it hard to keep up with what was going on, plot-wise. As such, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was happening, which detracted from my overall enjoyment of the grandstanding and merriment.
Voltaire’s razor-sharp critiques also get somewhat lost in all the silliness and the cardboard sheep. Voltaire shares many similarities with his protagonist, as the French writer was thrown in jail and exiled from his home in Paris for slandering and satirizing the French government. Voltaire’s witticisms in this version of Candide, however, fell pretty flat. This may have been partly due to the fact that there were fewer audience members than there were people on stage, an imbalance that was acutely felt, and also kind of a bummer.
Despite not knowing whether it wanted to be a musical or an opera, the cast of Candide performed with ample enthusiasm and vigor. Jarosz as Cunegonde wowed with her big number, “Glitter and Be Gay,” and Ramirez as Candide, when not grinning like a fool through his misfortunes, sang with an unflinching emotional depth and agility. The Old Lady (Marzell) also shined with her vibratory and versatile pipes, as did Anna Joham as Paquette, the chambermaid-turned-prostitute.
The standout performance, however, came from one of the smaller roles: Martin the street sweeper, played with a surly peckishness by Ben Brady. Remarkably, Brady stepped in less than a week before the play opened, because the original cast member fell ill. Brady’s grumpy pessimism in the face of all the other characters’ relentless optimism was a salty delight, and I wished he’d had more stage time.
On the whole, the production has a garish, childlike quality, despite the dramatic unfoldings and existential dilemmas at the root of the text. And while I wished the show had been shorter in general, if you can check your own sternness at the door, the production is, for the most part, good fun.