CANDIDE, Light Opera Works and Pegasus Players, at Northwestern University, Cahn Auditorium. Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, a 1956 Broadway flop, boasts an exuberant score brimming with nods to Mozart and echoes of Bernstein’s music for On the Waterfront and West Side Story. Since then numerous librettists and directors have labored to dramatize Voltaire’s tale of a youth whose optimism is shattered by war, rape, murder, torture, and the infidelity of his lover, Cunegonde. This Royal National Theatre adaptation by John Caird emphasizes the elemental power of life as an antidote to despair, mixing black comedy and serious philosophy more successfully than Harold Prince’s version at the Lyric a decade ago.

In director Lara Teeter’s U.S. premiere, Caird’s conception survives an often cluttered staging and problematic sound, which obscures the clever lyrics by Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Bernstein himself. As Candide, Will Reynolds compensates for strained high notes with earnest passion. Promising soprano Jendi Tarde is Cunegonde; James Rank doubles as narrator Voltaire and Candide’s mentor, Pangloss; and Kate Young brings bawdy Bea Arthur-esque energy to Cunegonde’s maidservant. The chorus under conductor Lawrence Rapchak does full justice to Bernstein’s grand Mahlerian finale.