The operatic musical “Candide” (which has been repeatedly rewritten and reconceived since its short-lived Broadway premiere in 1956) is as chaotic and turbulent as the journey of the New York City Opera over the past decade.
Hal Prince’s 1982 production of “Candide” was last revived by the company in 2008, right before it went on a year-long sabbatical, after which it struggled financially, was forced to move out of Lincoln Center and finally declared bankruptcy. Now under new management and trying to make a comeback, the company has returned to “Candide.”
Prince, who is personally overseeing this revival, has brought together a Broadway-caliber cast including Gregg Edelman, Linda Lavin, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Chip Zien and Brooks Ashmanskas.
Based on Voltaire’s 1759 French novel, the optimism of the benevolent title character is shaken again and again by calamitous circumstances that separate him away from his beloved Cunegonde.
The score (with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by multiple writers) is extraordinary (especially its lively overture, tour-de-force soprano aria and majestic choral finale), but the multiple rewrites have demonstrated the difficulty of balancing the score with an episodic structure, satirical edge and political commentary.
Prince conceived his production as a show-within-a-show, in which strolling players are performing “Candide” in an open marketplace and visual gags are repeatedly utilized. It is overstuffed and overcrowded but often entertaining.
At my performance last weekend, the cast still seemed to be finding its way and much of the humor failed to land. Edelman, who narrates and plays multiple roles, was ill at ease and Meghan Picerno made for a hyperactive but bland Cunegonde, but Johnson had a heartwarming earnestness as Candide and Lavin made the most of her supporting turn as the Old Lady.
The finale, “Make Our Garden Grow,” in which the main characters resolve to stop expecting rational meaning from the world and instead find meaning from pursuing a simple and honest life, has a cathartic resonance for this moment in our national culture. As the song ended, the cast stared ahead silently and resolutely, ready to face an uncertain and disconcerting future.