Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009

This is NOT the best of all possible Candides. If all of my colleagues have also led with this all-too-obvious remark, I apologize, but I make it a policy not to read any other reviews before I write my own, and this is the consequence.

Of course, by now Bernstein's Candide is a kind of Build Your Own Musical kit. Every director has to take the half-century of librettos and songs, which if performed in toto would take close to four hours, and decide what s/he wants to use. There is no definitive version of Candide. The only two constants are that it is based on Voltaire’s 1759 satiric novella of the same name, and that Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) wrote the score. I own three recordings of Candide none of which use the same songs in the same order, and all of which list different people as librettists and lyricists.

After examining 19 different performing versions of the show, director Ralph Petillo has chosen to restore some numbers from the original 1956 version that were cut in 1974, and to add some songs from the version Bernstein worked on shortly before his death in 1990. I missed the Sheep Song but enjoyed hearing the Act II duet We Are Women which was new to me.

2009 will go down in history as the season that two of the Berkshires’ most prestigious theatre companies staged two of the greatest works of 20th century musical theatre using only two upright pianos for accompaniment. While many a high school has presented Carousel with only piano accompaniment, NO ONE DOES CANDIDE WITH JUST TWO PIANOS!!!!! Yes, I’m shouting! You don’t do it!! What were they thinking?? I know money is tight, but if you can’t do “Candide” with some semblance of an orchestra, why do Candide at all?

And to make matters worse, before and after the show and during intermission they play a recording of an orchestral version of Bernstein’s great overture for Candide, as if to say, “Here’s what you’re missing folks.” I kept poking my son and saying, “You hear that? That’s what Candide really sounds like.”

I had taken my younger son with me because he is a huge fan of Voltaire’s novella. He was dreading the impact that a musical score would have on his favorite story, but I assured him that Candide was wonderful and he wouldn’t be disappointed. He was disappointed.

I was too. This is the third staging of Candide that I have seen, and the least successful. I saw the 1974 Chelsea Theatre Center of Brooklyn’s production directed by Hal Prince after it had moved to the Broadway Theatre, which was completely gutted for the show. The audience sat on stools that swiveled and the show took place on raised platforms all around and in and in between the audience, who spun on their stools to follow the action. It was fabulous! Then I saw a proscenium staging that worked very well about a decade ago up at the Weston Playhouse.

When the BTF announced Candide as the replacement for The Wiz in their 2009 line-up (the rights to the latter were withdrawn because of the upcoming touring production), two questions immediately came to my mind:
1) How are they going to fit Candide onto the Unicorn Stage?
2) Whose second choice is Candide?

I mean, seriously. The person whose first choice is The Wiz and second choice is Candide has very different tastes in musical theatre than most people. The Wiz could not have been an odder choice for the BTF or for Berkshire County, which is not home to a large population of theatre-going people of color. Candide is a great choice, but putting it on the Unicorn Stage and casting it solely with young artists from the BTF’s apprentice program and the graduate program at Brandeis University where Eric Hill, husband of BTF Artistic Director Kate Maguire, teaches, is also odd.

So this is a “Candide” on a single set with a young cast accompanied by two pianos. The best part of that equation is the young cast. Candide is the story of young people discovering that the world is not all their beloved Dr. Pangloss has taught them it was. Youthful energy is a good thing here, although on the night I attended the energy dissipated between the first and second acts as if someone had attached a giant vacuum hose to the Unicorn during intermission.

But the cast is too big and so is Erin Kiernan’s set – a two-story wooden school-yard jungle gym-type structure painted in primary colors that takes up too much room and is woefully under-utilized. I couldn’t imagine how they were going to fit any kind of an orchestra, enough of a cast, and the whole story on to the Unicorn Stage in the first place. Petillos’s solution was to dispense with the orchestra and then crowd so much set and so many people on to the stage that there’s hardly any room for the story, which is told in a broadly satiric way. This is puzzling because Candide is already a satire, but Petillo’s cast hammers home that point, just in case we don’t get it. We get it already!

The cast are a mixed bag. Some, like Julian Whitley who plays the title role and Matthew Stern who plays the Governor and acts as Musical Director, are operatically trained singers with fine voices. Others, like Ben Rosenblatt who plays the key role of Dr. Pangloss, cannot sing loudly enough or enunciate clearly enough to make the clever lyrics – penned by the likes of Stephen Sondheim, and Richard Wilbur – audible. Blessedly, no one is body miked, although there are area mikes to feed the sound into the assisted listening devices, so the difference between the operatically trained singers and the theatrically trained singers is marked.

McCaela Donovan plays a snarky little Cunegonde – a very different take on the character but one that works – and seems to really have fun with the fearsome Glitter and Be Gay, a number that separates the coloraturas from the mezzos. Julia Broder is likeable as the Old Woman, except of course she isn’t very old. It was in this role and in Pangloss that I longed for character actors of more maturity and experience.

Kyle Schaefer is solid as Cundegonde’s way-too-good-looking brother, Maximillian, and Becky Webber is a sassy Paquette who comes into her own in the second act where she is given more to do and sing.

Jessica Risser-Milne has designed serviceable costumes, better for the women than for the men. At the start and finish the entire enormous ensemble (there are 14 in the chorus) are garbed as British school boys and girls in gray flannels and school ties, establishing Petillo’s concept that this is a schoolyard satire thumbing its nose at the adult establishment. Alfred Jarry did that pretty thoroughly in his Ubu plays. Time to move on.

Whichever libretto you choose or run of numbers you select, Candide is first and foremost the premiere American operetta. The early decades of the 20th century were filled with operettas influenced by the British (Gilbert & Sullivan) and the Germanic (Friml, Romberg, and Kern) traditions, which were the genesis of American musical theatre, but Bernstein completed the cycle and rebirthed operetta in a genuinely American form. Fielding the proper singers is half the battle, and Petillo has only met that challenge halfway, but supporting them with the proper orchestration is essential. Two pianos just doesn’t cut it. I would have rather had a synthesizer because at least that is an instrument capable of mimicking a variety of instrumental sounds however dimly.

Candide runs through August 15 on the Unicorn Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one exceedingly brief intermission and is suitable for ages 12 and up.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009

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