Court Theatre

Leonard Bernstein’s Candide has been an operetta, a concert, and a circus. Now it’s a lecture–a lecture-demonstration, actually. Travis L. Stockley’s staging at the Court Theatre begins in an academic setting, a lecture hall/auditorium at a school not unlike Court’s home base, the University of Chicago. Trying to engage Philosophy 101 students who think they’ve found “an easy humanities elective,” the sourpuss young professor turns to the small orchestra that just happens to be lodged at the rear of the stage and asks the players to help him “punch the lecture up a bit” while he and his class act out Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire’s 1759 philosophical satire. Hey, kids, let’s put on a show.

So the professor doffs his elbow-patched jacket for a white wig to portray the philosopher Pangloss, a cockeyed optimist whose maxim that “all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds” leads him to amazing heights of rationalization, for everything from wholesale wartime slaughter to his own syphilitic ravages. One nice-looking pair of students take on the roles of Candide and Cunegonde, the idealistic young lovers separated by war, earthquake, the Inquisition, sexual enslavement, and various other disasters that they invariably manage to survive until they can find each other again. Another, less wholesome pair of students become Maximillian, Cunegonde’s vain fool of a brother, and Paquette, Cunegonde’s slutty chambermaid, whose global travels periodically intersect with those of Candide, Cunegonde, and Pangloss. They all end up together, a great deal the worse and the wiser for their wear and tear, wrung dry of noble pretensions and ready to get on with the work of simply living. Then the “students” drop their roles and return to “class,” filing out into the auditorium to sing the show’s climactic chorale “Make Our Garden Grow” before they head off to their next class.

Trite? Improbable? You bet. But it works. By framing Bernstein’s famously difficult, supersophisticated musical with such a silly, simpleminded device, Stockley sets a tone of disarming naivete that’s perfect for Candide’s story, so full of impossible coincidences and ridiculous reunions. If the audience will accept that first nonsensical turn of events, they’ll accept just about anything.

It’s no mean feat, making Candide work–it’s daunted any number of artists far more famously accomplished than Stockley. Here’s a show that musically evokes 19th-century Viennese and British operetta while telling a story whose elements include genocide, rape, torture, and the hero’s complete loss of faith in humanity–a story in which almost every action is prompted by the basest of human urges, and in which every appearance of virtue is undercut by hypocritical corruption or hysterical fanaticism. The original production, with a script by Lillian Hellman (the project was reportedly her idea), was a famous failure on Broadway in 1956. Savants said the thing was too literary, too somber, too downbeat to sell in Eisenhower’s America. Certainly it was too costly: this lavish, large-scale operetta staging, with 43 singers and a full orchestra, would have been better suited to a state-subsidized European opera-house production of Die Fledermaus. A leaner, less expensive effort might have succeeded–its director, Tyrone Guthrie, later self-critically complained that the show “skipped along with the effortless grace of a freight train heavy-laden on a steep gradient.” Still, the audiences who saw it liked it–and its original-cast album became a cultish collector’s item that kept the show’s name alive over the next decade.

A 1967 concert performance by Chicago’s Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (in which I sang), directed by Sheldon Patinkin and starring the great Gilbert and Sullivan comedian Martyn Green, dispensed with superficial stagecraft and allowed the alternately scathing and scintillating wit of the score–with lyrics by Richard Wilbur, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker, and Hellman–to emerge uncluttered. The interest stimulated by that concert eventually led to a crowd-pleasing, heavily revised Broadway production that featured direction by Harold Prince, a vulgarly jokey new script by Hugh Wheeler, and some new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. (The three men had previously collaborated on A Little Night Music, whose blending of European operetta and Broadway musical styles had invited comparison with Candide.) Prince turned the show into a circus: the audience ate peanuts while the actors bounded and bounced over and around them with plenty of bawdy zest but painfully little musicality. The performance I attended, several weeks into the show’s run, was a coarse, out-of-tune mess.

The new Court staging sticks mostly to the Wheeler script but dispenses entirely with the circus idea. Setting the action on a simple, coolly blue gray scaffolding (with occasionally ludicrous decorations, such as a green plastic palm tree when the story moves from Europe to the New World), and dressing the cast in elegantly simple costumes by Frances Maggio that suggest both the 18th and 20th centuries, Stockley delivers occasional flourishes of inventiveness separated by stretches of solid, sometimes stolid story telling. While he never approaches the sheer physical hilarity of Prince’s version, he makes the story a damn sight clearer. He also allows the actors to preserve their dignity even in the middle of some undignified actions–Candide and Cunegonde doffing their clothes as they sing a love duet, for example, or Candide’s duenna trying to entice male onlookers with a raunchy tango made more bizarre by the fact that she has only one buttock. As a result the audience is never distracted by embarrassment on the actors’ behalf.

Best of all, Stockley allows the performers to sing straightforwardly and well, avoiding the mock bad singing that has gotten laughs in other productions and the ponderousness that sometimes afflicts Bernstein’s own posthumously released recording. Under Barbara Schubert’s excellent musical direction (and to the accompaniment of an eight-person band that satisfactorily communicates the dynamics, if not the gorgeous texture, of the original Bernstein-Hershy Kay orchestrations), the singers communicate both the humor and the beauty of this marvelous score, whose constant interplay of romanticism and stringent irony so brilliantly mirrors Voltaire’s themes.

Soprano Melissa Dye as Cunegonde, pert and pretty despite being stuck with the world’s worst wig, was in especially good form at the performance I saw–saucy, sweet, and splendidly in control of the fiendishly high and fast melodies and rapid-fire lyrics that characterize her role. Tall, stalwart, Aryan-looking John Schroeder is an able Candide, especially effective in the quieter moments of songs like “Make Our Garden Grow”–though the final hug he gives Cunegonde is wrong, a sentimental move that undermines the wisdom of the moment. B.J. Jones is wry, if a little too restrained, as the foolish philosopher Pangloss–a role meant to evoke Groucho Marx’s pseudo-European shtick as well as Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter-singer characters. But in his function as narrator he keeps the plot moving comprehensibly, which isn’t easy to do. Rick Boynton, Pamela Harden, and Barbara E. Robertson provide solid support as Maximillian, Paquette, and Cunegonde’s duenna (one wishes, however, that this version hadn’t cut the original score’s funniest song, “What’s the Use,” which would have exploited Robertson’s sardonic comic streak). And when these soloists join with the small, superbly coached chorus for the music-hall Inquisition scene (“What a day, what a day, for an auto-da-fe”) or the sublime, not overly solemn a cappella finale, the effect is simply luminous.