In the best of all possible worlds, this cast would not be stuck in this show. The Yale Dramatic Association’s “Candide” shows off the tremendous acting and vocal talents of its cast, but at too many moments this stilted production of the musical, adapted from Voltaire’s witty satire, spoils its own fun.
As anyone who’s seen the show or read the book knows, “Candide” contains enough plot for at least 10 epic dramas or, in this case, one really good satire.
The story opens at the castle of the baron of Thunder-Ten-Tronck. Candide (Jimmy Johnson ’03), the baron’s bastard nephew; Candide’s love — and the baron’s daughter — Cunegonde (Lauren Worsham ’05); Cunegonde’s brother Maximillian (Dan Freeman ’03); and the maid, Paquette (Elissa Yudofsky ’03), live together in bliss, instructed in the art of undying optimism by their tutor, Dr. Pangloss (Elliot Greenberger ’05).
When Candide and Cunegonde are discovered performing a “scientific experiment” in the “relative specific gravities of male and female bodies,” Candide gets booted — literally.
From there, the plot defies summary. In the course of its action, virtually all of the characters — Candide is the major exception — die at least once. Stabbed, hanged, drowned, wracked with the last stages of syphilis — one and all, they refuse to stay dead.
Their adventures take them through Westphalia, Lisbon, Cadiz, Columbia, El Dorado, Constantinople and, in the case of Cunegonde, countless houses of ill-repute. Press-ganged, hounded, robbed, raped and generally persecuted at every port, they nonetheless retain their faith, instilled by Pangloss, that we do indeed live in the (only, and therefore) best of all possible worlds.
Johnson’s Candide is well-sung and engagingly earnest, despite the occasional moments of blandness that may be inevitable, given Candide’s undying denseness. But the true standouts of this show are the women. In particular, Worsham’s spirited performance and gorgeous voice in her opera-style solo, “Glitter and Be Gay,” are fantastic. Her Cunegonde somehow retains a note of disturbing cluelessness even as mourns her lost chastity: “If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are,” she sings.
Elissa Yudofsky ’03 has a wonderfully light, fresh touch as the saucy soubrette Paquette. Finally, as the woman-with-one-butt-cheek (long story), Maggie Wittlin ’05 is no slouch either. Her nifty number, “I’m Easily Assimilated,” is a classic.
But their performances can’t make up for some essential problems. The show suffers from a slow start, as curtain folds muffle a beautiful performance of Bernstein’s Overture from the 10-piece orchestra backstage.
The effect is particularly unfortunate given that the show features more memorable music than hummable melodies. The opening thus becomes an oddly mute, overextended moment of choreographed aimlessness; what follows is a thin, hollow sound that fails to support the singing onstage.
Candide has to be one of the most manhandled musicals in history. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, but after many incarnations, the program credits three different lyricists: Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim and John Latouche. The result is a pastiche.
Things pick up when the show exploits this jumbled voice, combining a rollicking musical, light opera, and agreeably haphazard jabs of satire lifted from the original. A sprinkling of numbers, including “Best Of All Possible Worlds,” “Auto-da-fe,” and the finale, “Make Our Garden Grow,” combine snappy choreography and strong singing to produce that well-loved slap-happiness of the Big Musical.
But beyond the music, many aspects of director Joe Ametrano’s production remain fuzzy, especially a heavy strain of pretentiousness that runs through its length. Before the overture, an MTV-style scattering of images and sound recalls disasters of the last century, from the JFK assassination through KKK rallies, the Bomb, Pearl Harbor, and, audaciously, Sept. 11.
Although the post-post-mod aesthetic doesn’t reappear, the show’s stabs at genuine pathos, sprinkled throughout, remain jarring. With all the goofy, good-natured scenes of rape and pillage littered throughout the show, the harsh lighting and stark staging of Candide’s scene of farewell to the castle is unnecessarily stagy. Serious points may have their place in satire; here they are obtrusive.
But the hodge-podge has its upsides. Despite its foibles, with toy-soldier battles, a maypole, dancing nuns, confetti, a duet between a rape victim and a burlap sack, and, above all, an excellent cast, this show still has lots to love.