Theater Review: ‘Candide’

One man's search for his place in the world
January 23, 2017 Updated: January 23, 2017

NEW YORK—Class status, the dangers of following the herd or alternatively, standing out from them, are the major issues in “Candide,” based on Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novella of the same name. Hal Prince, who directed the 1974 Broadway production, helmed the show’s recent revival by the New York City Opera.

The tale of Candide (Jay Armstrong Johnson), the ultimate true believer, is told by the showman Dr. Voltaire (Gregg Edelman) and his company of traveling players. The troupe recreates the story of the title character and his attempts to find his proper place in the world.

The production remains true to its satirical roots.

In the Westphalia region of Germany, there once dwelt a prosperous Baron (Brooks Ashmanskas) and his family: his daughter, the beautiful and virginal Cunegonde (Meghan Picerno); his somewhat vain son Maximilian (Keith Phares); and Candide, his bastard nephew.

The three, along with the serving maid Paquette (Jessica Tyler Wright), are being educated by Dr. Pangloss (Edelman). He explains that they are living in the best of all possible worlds and that everything that happens occurs for the best.

This is a veiled warning never to question why things are the way they are, but to simply accept them. However, things change when Candide and Cunegonde fall in love.

Despite his seeming acceptance by the family, Candide finds his illegitimate status closes certain avenues to him, including a relationship with Cunegonde. This is the first of many examples where what is acceptable for one does not extend to another. 

Candide subsequently finds himself banished, only to fall in with the invading Bulgarian army, which slaughters many of those he knew, while enslaving many others. With no home to return to, Candide travels from land to land, nearly losing his life several times.

He eventually reunites with Cunegonde, Maximilian, and Paquette. Cunegonde has become well-versed in the ways of men since she and Candide were last together, although their love for one another remains unchanged.

Ironically, while many of the main characters become more open-minded during the course of the story, Candide’s core belief that they are living in the best of all possible worlds never waivers. While he is willing to listen to another’s point of view, it is only to the extent it conforms to his own idealism and certainty.

The production remains true to its satirical roots, with swipes at those who use their positions—teachers, religious leaders and the well-to-do—to advance their own ends at the expense of others. Those in power take on many disguises and that one must decide the validity of the knowledge they impart, rather than blindly accepting it.

It’s no accident that Dr. Pangloss and the Sage, a wise man Candide and his friends encounter, is played by the same actor (Edelman) and also turns out to be the same character.

Johnson does good work as Candide, a much harder role than it initially appears, as it requires the character to continually adapt to changing circumstances while being the same person inside throughout.

Picerno is enjoyable as the innocent turned worldly Cunegonde. Wright and Phares are fine as Paquette and Maximilian.

Edelman does a good job in his various roles, while Linda Lavin does an excellent and often hilarious turn as an Old Woman who has experienced and suffered far more than Candide and his companions ever will.

The score by Leonard Bernstein is absolutely wonderful, with the pointed lyrics (by Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche and Leonard Bernstein) especially of “The Best of all Possible Worlds” and the more reverent “Make Our Garden Grow” particularly hitting home. Prince’s direction of Hugh Wheeler’s book is strong throughout, without letting any situation become too over the top or overtly repetitive.

Yet despite the production’s color and pageantry, it still comes across as a museum piece much of the time. The story, as told by the acting company, is more fable than realistic with Candide and his companions as caricatures rather than anything close to flesh and blood. As such, one doesn’t really care about them, but only about how their actions, and possible death(s) affect the story. This is a shame, considering how much topicality there is in its message.

That quibble aside, the New York City Opera’s recent production of “Candide” was quite an enjoyable experience.

Also in the cast are Peter Kendall Clark, Sishel Claverie, Chip Zien, Eric McKeever, Glenn Seven Allen, Curt Olds, Wayne Hu, Christopher Morrissey, Damian Chambers, Zak Edwards, Matthew Michael Uriniak, Barrett Davis, Makoto Winkler, Leah Horowitz, Kat Liu, Esther Antoine, and Hannah Jewel Kohn.

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theatre
Closed: Jan. 15

Judd Hollander is a reviewer for and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.