July 14 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
Berkshire Theatre Festival production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide is a delightful, buoyant, bawdy and perfectly charming romp though the awful adventures that Candide (Julian Whitley). He was brought up to believe “That all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” by his mentor Pangloss (Ben Rosenblatt) and naïvely does believe and put into action by daring to woo the beautiful, innocent, and saucy Cunegonde. Her family put a stop to that by quickly banishing the young lovers, and they are sent out into a world that is anything but best.
a delightful, buoyant, bawdy and perfectly charming romp
Their travels, beginning alone but meeting up at times only to be separated and demeaned time after time in dozens of countries, Europe in act I and in America in Act II, include ship wrecks, revolutions, Church and State confrontation, as all the imperfections of those inhabiting various lands rape, imprison, even kill (or seem to) poor Cunegone, Candide and Pangloss, who all manage to survive and reach an ending in which, now world-weary and much older, they decide to accept the life they have and live simply together in love and “Make Our Garden Grow.”
That such a plot could be at times hysterically funny, at other times shockingly boisterous and cruel, must be credited to the excellent huge cast of 21 young actors, all of whom as ensemble, with lightning speed, change costumes and characters creating the feeling that at least fifty actors are careening through this play.
The two leads, Candide and Cunegonde, each have several solos, performed with operatic skill. His includes “It must be so” and “It must be me.” Hers—“Glitter and Be Gay.” The two pianos make it possible for all to come out clear and beautifully with no microphones. And when the whole cast sing the big buoyant well-loved songs, the rousing enthusiasm make an orchestra’s absence be forgotten. Indeed, it should be noted that often two pianos were not needed and pianist Matthew Stern magically and ably plays a second-lead role such as Governor or religious patriarch.
Pangloss seems dead early on in the play, but do not believe it. He will miraculously return and one will realize where he’s been all the time.
Threading all the plot and holding it together remarkably is The Old Woman (Julia Broder), a dominating, ever-present creature, who has lost one buttock, but this does not stop her from appearing, gypsy-like, in various countries, but never losing her individual accent. She is especially effective in her solo, “I Am Easily Assimilated” and in a second act duet “We are Woman” with Paquette (Becky Webber), a lusty wench also banished. Webber is especially agile in seduction and in scaling the heights to steal gold, and is a fine singer.
And there is Maximilian (Kyle Schaefer) brother of Cunegonde, so enchantingly self-admiring that one would almost take him for the hero he considers himself as he takes front stage in the big numbers “Best of All Possible World’s” and “What’s the Use.”
The setting, by Eric Kiernman, works efficiently and pertly and is a colorful jungle-gym of platforms, ladders, and moving parts, and well lit by Jamie Davidson. Costume designer Jessica Risser-Milne has supplied the multiple regalia into which the ensemble characters keep changing as nations multiply.
This production is so surprisingly staged, so courageously paced, and so cheerfully presented that it should play to packed houses as it did the evening this reviewer saw it.
Oh, yes. There was a Director behind it all, holding all the swirling pieces and places together. Ralph Petillo working from the various possible scripts that over the years have evolved combining the talents of our own Berkshire poet, Richard Wilbur, who wrote the lyrics, and our once-own Lenny Bernstein, and a book by Hugh Wheeler.
There have been many Candides in the last fifty years. The current one at the Unicorn is a winner. And very, very funny, despite all the adversity. Enjoy.