CANDIDE, which opens Music Theater Works’ 2017 season, is a show of epic proportions. Based on Voltaire’s satirical 18th Century novella, CANDIDE the musical has rapturous music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by multiple major authors and an often-revised book that keeps trying to make sense of it all.
It’s not easy to do justice to CANDIDE. What exactly does justice means for a musical that has a duet about romantic miscues in one scene and a chorus number about burning heretics in another? For Artistic Director Rudy Hogenmiller’s production, the answer holds few surprises but consistent quality. The staging is surefooted, the singing outstanding, the characterizations distinct and the sets and costumes full of era-appropriate style.
Music Theater Works provides clarity
A literary classic that slams Age of Enlightenment optimism is not a natural fit for a Broadway show. Music Theater Works deals with the discomfort by providing clarity. During the overture, we don’t stare at a closed curtain. Instead, we watch Voltaire, as his own fiction’s narrator, emerge from a center stage trunk and hand out costume pieces to each actor. By the overture’s end, the cast has become individual characters and we’re eager to begin the globetrotting adventure.
Candide, a young student of the scholarly optimist Pangloss, buys into his teacher’s contention that theirs is “The Best of All Possible Worlds.” Life will be sweet and Candide’s lovely fellow student Cunegonde will share it with him. Of course, nothing from this moment onward can be described as best. Fate wrenches the two from each other and their home. As Candide clings to his “unaffected simplicity,” savagery and intolerance and betrayal bite at his heels from Europe to Latin America and back again.
CANDIDE goes for the glitter
The first act number “Glitter and Be Gay” sums up the difficulty with CANDIDE. With her maidenly virtue destroyed by “some Grand Duke or other,” Cunegonde consoles herself with champagne and jewels. The sweetest of high notes carries a very dark message. So what tone should Cunegonde strike? In a song that tests a soprano’s skill, Cecilia Iole is a joy to behold. But in line with Hogenmiller’s direction, she goes more for the glitter and less for the sorrow of women who find themselves trapped in abusive gilded cages.
This is not a production that wrestles deeply with the show’s incongruities. But even if it avoids messiness, it continually entertains. Ben Barker’s Candide is so genial and guileless, it’s easy to understand how he misses the early warning signs that Cunegonde prefers worldly riches to simple human bonds. Gary Alexander delivers an appealing performance in the doubled roles of Voltaire and Pangloss that chooses clear steps over struggle and nuance.
By the closing number – “Make Our Garden Grow” -- we have encountered the very worst of all possible worlds through one of the best of all possible scores. Dr. Pangloss’ sunny classroom lesson did not prepare Candide and Cunegonde for their harrowing journey. But so many centuries after Voltaire set out to debunk optimism, we know that his story matches reality far too well. The innocuous trunk which sets Music Theater Work’s CANDIDE in motion seems more like a Pandora’s Box.
Now through June 11
Friday, June 9 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, June 10 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, June 11 at 3:00 PM
600 Emerson St.
$34 – 96 (ages 25 and younger half-price)
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning, Emmy-nominated playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre.