Candide

Meghan Picerno, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Linda Lavin, Gregg Edelman

 

 

by Marilyn Lester

 

Like the Phoenix rising from the fire, The New York City Opera, bankrupt and shuttered in 2013, has risen from the ashes. Now operating from Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall, a venue perfectly suited for the work and mission of the renewed company, City Opera has wisely revived its never-fail staple, Candide. This pepped up production has much to recommend it for serious comedic enterprise and a solid end-game of splendid entertainment. François-Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire, author of the source material, would probably like it immensely.

 

Candide is a curious hybrid of operetta and musical theater. This production of the “opera house version,” with its toes dipped firmly in Broadway waters, may disappoint opera purists, but is sure to please musical theater goers and those without hardened hearts. City Opera first produced Candide in 1982 under the direction of Hal Prince. Now Prince is back, better than ever. At the top of his game at age 88, Prince plays the comedic aspects of the piece to the hilt and why not? His Candide is a carnival burlesque true to the fast-moving Voltaire satire. Candide is in and of itself a quirky, eccentric work. Prince’s instinct to have fun with it strikes gold; his bits of business, sight gags and cleverness play brilliantly from the libretto, aided by a talented cast of actors, singers and dancers. Choreography by Pat Birch, while not ground-breaking, is synergistically in keeping with Prince’s direction.

 

Jay Armstrong Johnson, Jessica Tyler Wright, Gregg Edelman, Keith Phares, Meghan Picerno

Originally, Candide was intended as an operetta by composer Leonard Bernstein and was written with author Lillian Hellman (who proposed the project) and poet Richard Wilbur. Subsequently cut down for a Broadway debut in 1956, the piece flopped and went on to many revisions with and without Bernstein. This version has Bernstein’s uncompromising music, with book by Hugh Wheeler and lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche and Bernstein.

 

The remarkable cast is, like the work itself, a hybrid – made up of opera singers who can seriously act, and Broadway actors who can seriously sing. As an aggregate, they glitter with gaiety and glee, but the hands-down cherry on the sundae is Linda Lavin as the world-weary The Old Lady with one buttock. Lavin’s acting and comic abilities are flawless; at age 79, her energy remarkable, and her vocal abilities – well, awesome, all things considered. Her big number “I Am Easily Assimilated (Old Lady’s Tango)” was a show-stopper and a master class all in one.

 

Keith Phares, Jessica Tyler Wright, Linda Lavin, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Meghan Picerno

 

As the eponymous Candide, Jay Armstrong Johnson proves vocally capable as demonstrated in his “It Must Be So (Candide’s Meditation). Armstrong does deliver the necessary vulnerability to the role, but his strong suit is charm, applied to the innocent whose life journeys bring him to a loss of faith, despair and redemption. Candide the operetta is closely based on Voltaire’s 1759 work, which describes the protagonist’s trials and tribulations across wide physical and emotional territories. Taught by his mentor, Dr. Pangloss, Candide comes to reject the Leibnizian philosophy of blind optimism (this is the best of all possible worlds) to a philosophy of practicality. As Pangloss (and as Voltaire, the Governor, the Businessman, the Police Chief, the 2nd Gambler and the Wisest Man), Gregg Edelman anchors this broad piece, skillfully and gleefully handling all the ropes that tie Candide together with pleasant voice and expert comedic timing.

 

The vocal heavyweights in the troupe are opera singers: the delightfully appealing coloratura soprano Meghan Picerno as Cunegonde and robust baritone Keith Phares as Maximilian, with the versatile singing actress Jessica Tyler Wright as Paquett – all perfectly cast. Picerno has the daunting task of singing the challenging “Glitter and Be Gay,” and she handles both the difficult vocalizing and simultaneous acting with near perfection.

Chip Zien, Gregg Edelman, Brooks Ashmanskas

 

As the various characters encountered by Candide on his roller coaster quest for “the best of all possible worlds” are Chip Zien as Max’s Servant (Hugo), Radu (1st Bulgarian), the Judge, Father Bernard, the Rich Jew (Issachar), and the First Gambler; and Brooks Ashmanskas as Pasha-Prefect, the Baron, the Grand Inquisitor and the Slave Driver. Both of these Broadway veterans and character men are at the top of their comedic game, and especially succeed in making all of the non-PC elements of the piece acceptably loony.

 

Last but not least, Candide owes a large part of its success to a rich ensemble of chorus and dancers, and full orchestra under the baton of Charles Prince. Their work, along with the principal cast was especially noteworthy in the opener “Westpahlia Chorale” and the beautiful closing number, “Make Our Garden Grow.” Helping to make the production look sumptuous within a budget are Clarke Dunham (scenery design), Judith Dolan (costume design), Ken Billington (lighting design), Abe Jacob (sound design) and Georgianna Eberhard (wig and makeup design). Valerie K. Wheeler is Production Stage Manager.

Photos: Sarah Shatz

 

Candide, through January 12, 2017 (check schedule for days and times)

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, Broadway at 60th Street,212-721-6500

www.jazz.org and www.nycopera.com

 

Share