At Music Theater Works

By Dan Zeff

Evanston For more than 60 years “Candide” has been a major problem child for American musical theater. Some of the great names in American music and literature have contributed to the show, beginning with composer Leonard Bernstein, with further creative credits filled out by cultural icons like Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman, and Dorothy Parker. “Candide” has been revised and tweaked many times since its 1956 Broadway premiere, and the result has always been a frustrating blend of the brilliant and the boring.

          In 1999, the Royal National Theatre in Great Britain created its own adaptation of “Candide,” which has been picked up by the Music Theater Works (formerly the Light Opera Works) for one of the company’s regrettably short runs. As usual, the show is well sung, well staged, and well cast. It can’t camouflage the musical’s imperfections but it’s still the finest of the several productions I’ve seen. The best audience strategy is to rejoice in the presentation’s good stuff and just ride out the weaknesses.

          “Candide” originated as a 1759 novel by the French philosopher Voltaire, who wrote the book to satirize the philosophy of optimism current at the time. That philosophy can the summarized (and is repeated over and over again in the musical) as “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” This line of thinking is promoted in the face of an unbroken series of disasters and horrors that afflict the main characters for nearly three hours of performance time.

Photo Credit: Brett Beiner

          The title character is an innocent young man who lives in a castle in Westphalia, Germany. Candide is the illegitimate son of the sister of the castle’s baron and he is in love with Cunegonde, the baron’s daughter. The girl loves him back and they see a life of marital bliss ahead but the baron is aghast at the idea of his daughter marrying an illegitimate young man and boots the lad out of the castle. The depressed Candide tries to make his way in the world, enduring a series of personal afflictions that eventually run geographically from the old world of Europe to the new world of South America.

          Intersecting Candide’s journey of calamity are Dr. Pangloss (the tutor of the baron’s son Maximilian), Cunegonde, Cunegonde’s maid (known only as the Old Woman), a confirmed pessimist named Martin, and a kind of handyman named Macambo who attaches himself to Candide as a servant. Cumulatively the characters proceed through an accumulation of frightful abuses including rape, torture, and disease. Finally Candide leads his woebegone band to a farm he purchased high in the mountains. There, he announces, they will put their misfortunes behind them and live in peace, finding meaning in work, in which Voltaire anticipated Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” by almost 150 years.

          Beginning with the premiere of the musical, the critical consensus has praised Bernstein’s score and blasted Hugh Wheeler’s book. In spite of all the revisions since 1956, the situation has not changed. Bernstein’s score is superb, starting with the famous Overture that provides a musical theme throughout the evening.  But the book, with its sequence of often improbable incidents, is repetitive and tiresome, whether the action resides in the magical kingdom of El Dorado in South America or Lisbon, Portugal, where 30,000 people die in an earthquake.

        Aggravating the plodding episodes is a lack of character development that could have bulked up the narrative. Candide starts out innocent and trusting and he remains that way through all his catastrophes until the end of the show. The same is true with Cunegonde The tone of the show also shifts abruptly from time to time. There are numerous bits of humor but sometimes the tone abruptly changes gears to a serious note, like when the servant girl Paquette suddenly lashes out at the brutality that women of her day face every day. Her outrage could have exploded from the most committed feminist of the 21st century. It’s harrowing listening but it seems out of place in its intensity with the rest of the book. In one late scene in Venice, six crowned figures appear out of nowhere and one by one they yield their crowns and decide to return to a better way of life. What they have to do with anything in the show remains a mystery, at least to this spectator.

Photo Credit: Brett Beiner

          The first act is the stronger of the two, largely because of the appearance of the Old Woman, performed with towering vocal and comic presence by Emily Barnash, who takes over the show late in the act with a long screed about what a horrific life she has led. The name Old Woman seems a stretch for Barnash, a handsome young woman a couple of decades away from Old Woman-hood.  The tedium of the second act can be laid partly to the reduction of Barnash’s participation.

          The role of Candide is handsomely sung by Ben Barker, though as an actor he is trapped in a one-dimensional role. Celia Iole is a fetching Cunegonde, a character not averse to having her body violated from time to time as long as there is some financial advantage from a lecherous aristocrat or clergyman. Iole garnishes the famous “Glitter and Be Gay” coloratura showpiece with some amusing physical flourishes.

Gary Alexander is outstanding doubling as Doctor Pangloss and the story’s narrator, a stand-in for Voltaire. As Martin, Russell Alan Rowe hits the bull’s-eye with his relentless and well earned pessimism. Raymond Goodell provides a breezy presence and a fine singing voice as Cacambo. And Abby Murray Vachon delivers a knockout reading of Paquette’s fierce feminist attack, even though the speech stops the satirical mood of the show dead in its tracks. Billy Dawson has some good humorous moments as Maximilian, Cunegonde’s disagreeable prissy brother.

          Director Rudy Hogenmiller has put together the production with style and invention. The choreography by Clayton Cross is a huge asset in injecting energy into the often leaden book and the large chorus delivers Cross’s dance designs with enthusiasm and accomplishment. It’s not their fault that the book is so much of a grind so much of the time. Adam Veness has designed the functional bi-level set and Alexa Weinzierl’s costume designs are colorful and multitudinous and credibly historical. Andrew Meyers is the lighting designer and Aaron Quick designed the sound plan, completing the high quality physical production team. And as always, the large orchestra under Roger L. Bingaman’s direction gives the production a superior professional gloss.

          The Music Theater Works deserves the highest props for taking on such a problematic show and coming up with an essentially agreeable result. This is a production without a weakness. The problems remain with the adaptation and they may never be resolved. Still, the Leonard Bernstein music is a rich pastiche of opera, light opera, Broadway, and Gilbert and Sullivan. It may be the success of the show resides more in a concert performance than a fully acted effort. Still, there is so much quality work on the Cahn Auditorium stage and behind the scenes that anyone with a serious interest in musical theater needs to give it a look, with only a handful of performances left. Whatever its imperfections, this “Candide” deserves a longer performing life. Next up is “Gypsy” August 19-27.

   The show gets a rating of 3 stars                    

       “Candide” runs through June 11 at the Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street. Performances are Wednesday at 2 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Ticket prices begin at $34. Call 847 920 5360 or visit

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