Candide June 3-11

June 3-11, 2017

Cahn Auditorium, Evanston

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“The best of all possible worlds!”

Take Voltaire’s timeless satire on the follies and foibles of the human race, add a score by Leonard Bernstein of West Side Story and Wonderful Town, and you get Candide — a madcap circus of a show. Indulge in Glitter and Be Gay, Make Our Garden Grow, the famous Candide overture and other musical gems.
Ages 12 and older

With 24-piece orchestra

Candide
The Royal National Theatre Version
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler
In a new version by John Caird
Lyrics by Richard Wilbur
With additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein

Saturday, June 3, 2017 at 8 pm
Sunday, June 4 at 2 pm
Wednesday, June 7 at 2 pm
Friday, June 9 at 8 pm
Saturday, June 10 at 8 pm
Sunday, June 11 at 2 pm
Tickets start at $34
Age 25 and younger 1/2 price (suitable for 12 and older)

Order Tickets
Or call (847) 920-5360

 

Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission

 

 

Musical Excerpts

MORE ABOUT THE SHOW

The many voices of Candide

By Michael Kotze

Considering the talent involved, it seemed the 1956 Broadway premiere of the new musical Candide could not miss. The book was by one of America’s most esteemed playwrights, Lillian Hellman, whose The Little Foxes was already considered a modern classic. Musical tornado Leonard Bernstein, equally at home on the podium of the New York Philharmonic and on the Great White Way, wrote the score.

Bernstein had On the Town and Wonderful Town under his belt, and his next Broadway musical looked to be his most exciting yet, with a top-drawer team of lyricists, including poet Richard Wilbur, Broadway veteran John La Touche and Algonquin Round Table wit Dorothy Parker. To top it off, the production was to be staged by possibly the most acclaimed director of the day, Tyrone Guthrie.

So much talent—such high hopes! And then, Candide opened to mixed reviews, and closed after just 73 performances, a two-month run. In his review, influential critic Walter Kerr wrote “Three of the most talented people our theatre possesses—Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, Tyrone Guthrie—have joined hands to transform Voltaire’s Candide into a really spectacular disaster.”

What went wrong?

It has been customary to pin most of the blame on Hellman’s book, but perhaps Dorothy Parker was right: “There were too many geniuses involved.” It was Hellman who first had the idea of bringing Voltaire’s short, sharp shock of a novel to the stage. In the story of young naïf Candide, clinging to optimism as he is flung from catastrophe to catastrophe, Hellman found “laughter, wisdom, comment, satire and bite.” She also found a parallel between Voltaire’s targets and the sacred cows of her own time: “I thought of it as an attack on all rigid thinking, on all isms.”

Hellman first conceived Candide as a play with incidental music, but when she approached Bernstein with the project, his enthusiasm for turning it into a full-scale musical won her over. As work progressed, Hellman struggled to find the right structure for her adaptation, going through 14 different versions in the process. Had she stuck to her original plan, she might have found a more fleet-footed way of turning Voltaire’s sprawling narrative into an effective stage piece. As it was, no one was ever satisfied with her book, least of all Hellman.

Glitzy trainwreck

By all accounts, Guthrie’s production was spectacular, with lavish sets and costumes, but lacking the light touch that might have alchemized all that lead into gold. Guthrie later admitted, “My direction skipped along with the effortless grace of a freight train heavy-laden on a steep gradient.”

Bernstein’s music was the one element of Candide that emerged with universal praise. Even Kerr’s pan included this: “Once the air has cleared a bit, I imagine Mr. Bernstein will come off best…” Everyone acknowledged the score was brilliant, but its brand of brilliance was not the kind selling tickets on Broadway in the winter of 1956. Two long-running hits had opened in the two weeks before the Candide premiere: Bells Are Ringing and Li’l Abner. The near-operatic Candide is certainly the odd man out compared to these works of Broadway pop-craft.

Columbia Records released an original cast recording, which documents all of Candide’s assets and none of its liabilities. Anyone listening might well find it difficult to believe the show was a flop. As all the problems surrounding the 1956 production faded from memory, the album kept the music of Candide firmly in the picture.

The quality of the score led to many attempts to bring a new and improved Candide to the stage. During the next decade or so, performances followed in London, Los Angeles and Chicago, but none redeemed the show’s reputation from that of merely a cult favorite.

A Princely musical comedy

That changed in 1973 when Harold Prince staged a radically revised version with a new book, some new lyrics, and a whole new attitude. Where the original production presented Candide as a kind of grand operetta, the new Candide was pure musical comedy.

One doesn’t associate Lillian Hellman with musical comedy; indeed, after years of being portrayed as the villain of this story, she finally withdrew the performance rights to her Candide book, thus ending what she called her “most unpleasant experience in the theater.” British playwright Hugh Wheeler, who had provided the book for Prince’s most recent Broadway hit, A Little Night Music, was brought on board to create a new libretto, sometimes fitting the old Candide numbers into new dramatic contexts. Stephen Sondheim provided some new lyrics, including a very effective new opening sequence.

Prince’s production, abetted by Wheeler’s book, made Candide into a hit at last; it was a high-energy, immersive staging with the nonstop action taking place on platforms throughout the theater in and around the audience. A hit at the Chelsea Theatre in Brooklyn, Prince’s Candide quickly transferred to Broadway, where it ran nearly two years. An expanded version was devised for the New York City Opera and later traveled widely, including a stop at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

It would seem the curtain could be drawn on a happy ending. But, ah, the course of Candide’s adventures, like those of its protagonist, never did run smooth. Prince and Wheeler had turned Candide into a bona fide Broadway hit, but at what cost? A great deal of great music had been jettisoned, and much of which remained had been rearranged and redistributed (Bernstein had given this re-do his blessing, but had no part in its making). The musical prodigality that had been a hallmark of the piece had been decidedly compromised.

Worse, many thought Wheeler’s book betrayed the spirit of Candide, both Voltaire’s and Bernstein’s. To be fair, Wheeler did find a viable solution to a seemingly intractable problem (and was rewarded with the 1974 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical). Even so, the esteemed Broadway historian and critic Ken Mandelbaum, while admitting that Wheeler’s book “worked well with Prince’s informal, intermissionless, and giddy staging on Broadway,” comparing it with the Hellman original found it “in no way an improvement; in fact, it’s less funny, substituting camp and leers for wit.”

That “Scottish operetta”

The conductor and Bernstein protégé John Mauceri, who had been the music director of the 1973 revival, later wrote “This Candide had turned into one long joke. The heart, the tears and the faith—all clearly part of Voltaire’s reason for writing Candide—were nowhere to be found in the post-Lillian Hellman versions. Also, the music was all out of order.” In the late Eighties, Mauceri set to work on yet another edition of Candide, based on the Wheeler book but downplaying the shtick, while honoring Bernstein’s musical intentions. It was first produced by the Scottish Opera in 1988, and has been the basis of many productions at international opera houses.

A decade later, the Royal National Theatre in London presented a new production directed by Royal Shakespeare Company mainstay John Caird who, in his pursuit of a more authentic theatrical realization of Voltaire, provided his own substantial reworking of the book, managing at the same time to adhere to Bernstein’s musical structure as advocated by Mauceri. Both Richard Wilbur and Stephen Sondheim contributed revisions of the lyrics. In his review of Caird’s production in The Spectator, critic Sheridan Morley, after recounting the musical’s four decades of outrageous fortune, stated, “But now, at long, long last, we have it as damn near right as we are ever likely to get it.” (This is the version MUSIC THEATER WORKS will present in June at Cahn Auditorium.)

I concur. Other adaptors have continued to grapple with Candide (including Mary Zimmerman at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2010), but in my four decades (!) of Candide-going, this is the most satisfying I have seen, balancing Voltaire’s mercurial savagery with the undercurrent of warm humanity that Bernstein’s music demands, a remarkable feat of dramatic tightrope walking.

Is there another Broadway musical as extravagantly packed with brilliance as Leonard Bernstein’s Candide? Since its 1956 premiere, that brilliance has proved to be both a blessing and a curse, but now, more than 60 years after the pandemonium of its creation, we can safely say the curse has been lifted, and what remains is a blessing.

 

Candide was first presented by LIGHT OPERA WORKS on December 30, 1982, directed by Philip A, Kraus and conducted by Barney Jones. The second production opened August 14, 2004, in a co-production with Pegasus Players. It was directed by Lara Teeter and conducted by Lawrence Rapchak. The current production opens June 3, 2017, directed by Rudy Hogenmiller and conducted by Roger L. Bingaman.
FREE DISCUSSION

Balcony Talk

For 10 years, audience members have enhanced their appreciation of MUSIC THEATER WORKS productions with business manager Mike Kotze’s lively behind-the-scenes look at the show they’re about to see. He’s our resident expert on all things music and theater!

Join Mike for fun facts about Candide on any of these dates:

Sunday, June 4 • 12:45 pm
(doors open 12:30)
Saturday, June 10 • 6:45 pm
(doors open 6:30)
Sunday, June 11 • 12:45 pm
(doors open 12:30)

No need to RSVP—just attend (even if you have tickets for a different performance).

PHOTOS

Click any photo to view and download a larger image.

From left: Ben Barker (Candide), Cecilia Iole (Cunegonde), Gary Alexander (Pangloss), Abby Murray Vachon (Paquette) and Billy Dawson (Maximilian) in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works), Cahn Auditorium, Evanston, IL ,June 3-11, 2017.

Photo credit: Brett Beiner


Cary Lovett (Vanderdendur) and ensemble.

Photo credit: Brett Beiner

Ben Barker (Candide) and ensemble.

Photo credit: Brett Beiner

Gary Alexander (Pangloss).

Photo credit: Brett Beiner

Billy Dawson (Maximilian).

Photo credit: Brett Beiner

Ben Barker (Candide).

Photo credit: Brett Beiner

Cecilia Iole (Cunegonde).

Photo credit: Brett Beiner

Cecilia Iole (Cunegonde) and Ben Barker (Candide).

Photo credit: Brett Beiner

Emily Barnash (The Old Woman) and ensemble.

Photo credit: Brett Beiner

The cast of Candide.

Photo credit: Brett Beiner

VIDEO

Click above to watch highlights of Candide at Music Theater Works.

PRESS RELEASE

Contact: Christopher Riley
Director of Audience and Press Services
(847) 920-5354 ext. 10 (press only)
criley@musictheaterworks.org

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

MUSIC THEATER WORKS presents CANDIDE June 3-11, 2017

Who 
Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works)

What 
CANDIDE
The Royal National Theatre Version
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler
In a new version by John Caird
Lyrics by Richard Wilbur
Additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman,
Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein
Directed by Rudy Hogenmiller
Choreographed by Clayton Cross
Conducted by Roger L. Bingaman

When
Press Opening – Saturday, June 3, 2017, at 8 pm
Sunday, June 4, at 2 pm
Wednesday, June 7, at 2 pm
Friday, June 9, at 8 pm
Saturday, June 10, at 8 pm
Sunday, June 11, at 2 pm

Where
Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street, Evanston, IL

Tickets
Tickets start at $34. Ages 25 and younger half-price.
(847) 920-5360 • www.MusicTheaterWorks.com

Evanston, IL: Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works) presents the Leonard Bernstein classic, CANDIDE, based on Voltaire’s satire on the follies of the human race, at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston, June 3 through 11. A 24-piece orchestra accompanies the well-known songs “Glitter and Be Gay,” “The Best of All Possible Worlds” and “Make Our Garden Grow.”

CANDIDE is directed by Music Theater Works artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller, conducted by music director Roger L. Bingaman and choreographed by Clayton Cross.

The cast includes Gary Alexander (Voltaire/Pangloss), Ben Barker (Candide), Cecilia Iole (Cunegonde), Emily Barnash (The Old Woman), Billy Dawson (Maximilian), Abby Murray Vachon (Paquette) and Russell Alan Rowe (Martin).

The design/production team is Adam Veness (scenic and technical director), Alexa Weinzierl (costumes), Andrew H. Meyers (lighting), Aaron Quick (sound), Mary Zanger (stage manager) and Katie Beeks (production manager).

CANDIDE is sponsored by The Pauls Foundation, with additional support from the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation. The opening night reception is sponsored by Prairie Moon Restaurant in Evanston.

CANDIDE is Music Theater Works’ first production of 2017. The season will continue with GYPSY (August 19-27), the concert performance DUKE ELLINGTON’S GREATEST HITS (October 6-15) and PETER PAN (December 23-January 1, 2018).

Discounted season ticket packages are still available.

Ticket prices for CANDIDE begin at $34. Ages 25 and younger are half price. To order tickets, or for more information, call the Music Theater Works box office at (847) 920-5360 or order online 24 hours a day at www.MusicTheaterWorks.com

Director/Music Director/Choreographer Biographies

RUDY HOGENMILLER (Director), artistic director of Music Theater Works, has directed and choreographed many productions for the company including DIE FLEDERMAUS, LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU: JULE STYNE’S GREATEST HITS, MAME, MY FAIR LADY, GUYS AND DOLLS, SOUTH PACIFIC, THE FANTASTICKS, THE MERRY WIDOW, COLE PORTER’S GREATEST HITS, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, H.M.S. PINAFORE, OLIVER!, MAN OF LA MANCHA, CAMELOT, BRIGADOON, HELLO, DOLLY!, THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, KISS ME, KATE, SOUTH PACIFIC, THE MIKADO and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Hogenmiller was seen on stage in 2014 as Mr. Applegate in DAMN YANKEES, and as the Emcee in CABARET in 2013. He has been recognized with six Joseph Jefferson Awards and 17 nominations for best direction and choreography in Chicago, and has been a member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers for more than 35 years.

ROGER L. BINGAMAN (Music Director and Conductor) conducts the 24-piece orchestra. Bingaman made his first appearance on the Music Theater Works podium in 1997, conducting THE MERRY WIDOW. Since then he has conducted many productions, including DIE FLEDERMAUS, MAME, MY FAIR LADY, SOUTH PACIFIC, THE FANTASTICKS, CABARET, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, H.M.S. PINAFORE, OLIVER!, CAMELOT, THE STUDENT PRINCE, BRIGADOON, HELLO, DOLLY! CAROUSEL, and THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD, as well as THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, THE MUSIC MAN, IOLANTHE, GIGI, OKLAHOMA!, BITTER SWEET, KISS ME, KATE, 110 IN THE SHADE, NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY and BEAUTIFUL HELEN OF TROY. Bingaman has been director of the apprentice program and chorus master for the Sarasota Opera since 1998.

CLAYTON CROSS (Choreographer) choreographed MAME, MY FAIR LADY and GUYS AND DOLLS at Music Theater Works, where also played the Mute in THE FANTASTICKS and was a featured dancer in DAMN YANKEES. Cross served for five years as artistic advisor, board member and choreographer for Renegade Dance Architects, and continues to consult and contribute choreography to the Capitol One Bowl’s ALL AMERICAN HALFTIME SHOW. He is a master teacher for M.A. Dance, a Texas-based traveling convention circuit, where he has worked and judged for the past 17 years. Throughout his 20-year career as a dancer, Cross has worked with Robert Battle, Fernando Bujones, Frank Chaves, Paul Taylor ,and Ann Reinking. He was featured in EVERY DANCER HAS A STORY, a PBS special about the River North Chicago Dance Company, where he was a company member for nine seasons and toured nationally and internationally. Originally from Midland, Texas, Cross received his early training from La Petite Dance Company, Coleman Academy, and the Midland Community Theatre. He holds a BFA in ballet and modern dance from Texas Christian University.

Cast Biographies

GARY ALEXANDER (Voltaire/Pangloss) has appeared in eight Music Theater Works productions including CARNIVAL!, THE STUDENT PRINCE and 2004’s CANDIDE (as Maximilian). Recent engagements include THE BOOK CLUB PLAY at 16th Street Theater, 15 productions for ShawChicago, most recently MISALLIANCE and JEEVES INTERVENES, and A CHRISTMAS CAROL at Drury Lane Oakbrook. He has performed in several shows for The Shakespeare Project of Chicago (where he created and directed SPOOKY SHAKES for the Chicago Cultural Mile Association). At the Ravinia Festival he was seen in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE and the revue THE MUSIC OF RODGERS AND HART. Other credits include BINKY RUDICH at the Goodman Theater, VIKINGS and MIRANDOLINA at Noble Fool, and appearances at Piven Theatre, Rising Moon and Stage Left. TV and film credits include CHICAGO FIRE and THE PRINCE AND ME 2.

BEN BARKER (Candide) is making his Music Theater Works debut. A graduate of Northwestern University, he has been seen at Marriott Theatre in SPRING AWAKENING (Moritz) and OCTOBER SKY (O’Dell), Paramount Theatre in LES MISERABLES, Porchlight Music Theatre in SWEENEY TODD and Writers Theatre in ARCADIA. Regional credits include Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, THE COMEDY OF ERRORS and RICHARD III and the Palace Theater in the Dells’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL. benjaminjonesbarker.com

CECILIA IOLE (Cunegonde) is making her Music Theater Works debut. She was recently seen as Johanna in Paramount Theatre’s SWEENEY TODD. Regional credits include THE LITTLE MERMAID (Ariel), LES MISERABLES (Cosette), and TITANIC: THE MUSICAL (Caroline) at Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre. Other Chicago credits include THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE (Olive) at Steel Beam Theatre and A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Ghost of Christmas Past) at Quest Theatre Ensemble. ceciliaiole.com

EMILY BARNASH (The Old Woman) returns to Music Theater Works after appearing last season in LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU: JULE STYNE’S GREATEST HITS and DIE FLEDERMAUS (Rosalinda cover). She will be back as Mazeppa in GYPSY this August. With the Northwestern University Opera Theatre, she performed the title role in SUSANNAH and Mrs. Patrick DeRocher in DEAD MAN WALKING. Other roles include Béatrice in BÈATRICE ET BÈNÈDICT, Madeline/Isabel in THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR, Countess Almaviva in LE NOZZE DI FIGARO, Suor Angelica in SUOR ANGELICA, Arminda in LA FINTA GIARDINIERA, Dido in DIDO AND AENEAS, Lady Billows in ALBERT HERRING, Kate Pinkerton in MADAMA BUTTERFLY and Miss Pinkerton in THE OLD MAID AND THE THIEF. Musical theater roles include the Witch in INTO THE WOODS, Susan in [TITLE OF SHOW], Penelope Pennywise in URINETOWN and Lily Vanessi in KISS ME, KATE. Emily was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Wisconsin District (2015) and received an Encouragement Award at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Florida District (2017). Originally from St. Petersburg, Florida, she completed her B.M. in vocal performance at DePauw University and her M.M. in vocal performance at Northwestern University. She currently studies with Alexandra LoBianco.

BILLY DAWSON (Maximilian) returns to Music Theatre Works, where he was seen in DAMN YANKEES (Rocky), FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (Fydeka), and THE MERRY WIDOW (understudy Brioche and Bogdanovitch). Other regional credits include THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA and THE LAST FIVE YEARS (Three Rivers Music Theatre), WOZZECK, TOSCA (Lyric Opera of Chicago), A NEW BRAIN (Brown Paper Box Co.), THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (Fort Wayne Civic Theatre), as well as concerts and cabarets with Fort Wayne Philharmonic, Chicago Artists Chorale and Harbor Country Opera. In addition to performing, he is co-founder of Three Rivers Music Theatre, and is an on-air personality for The CW. billydawson.net @dawsonbilly

ABBY MURRAY VACHON (Paquette) is making her Music Theater Works debut. Her credits include SWEENEY TODD at the Paramount Theatre and performing with Leslie Uggams in AN EVENING WITH LESLIE UGGAMS at Dayton, Ohio’s Victoria Theatre. At the Round Barn Theatre at Amish Acres she was Annie Sullivan in THE MIRACLE WORKER, Natalie in ALL SHOOK UP, Hodel in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and Hilda in PLAIN AND FANCY. She played Fantine in LES MISÉRABLES with Pitch In Productions and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Wright State University. abbymurrayvachon.com

RUSSELL ALAN ROWE (Martin) returns to Music Theater Works where he appeared in MAME (M. Lindsay Woolsey), MY FAIR LADY (George, Lord Boxington), SOUTH PACIFIC (Cmdr. Harbison), THE MERRY WIDOW (Kromov), FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (Constable) and ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (Mac/Buffalo Bill understudy.). Favorite Chicago roles include Robert Danvers in THERE’S A GIRL IN MY SOUP at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre and the Man in Christopher Durang’s LAUGHING WILD with Bailiwick Chicago. Other Chicago credits include PARADE (Governor Slaton/Luther Rosser), AMADEUS (Strack), FLOYD COLLINS (Lee Collins) and THE RAINMAKER (Sheriff Thomas), all with Bohemian Theatre Ensemble. Russell was seen in Porchlight Music Theatre’s ANYONE CAN WHISTLE in concert, and StageLeft’s BLUE/WHITNEY. Russell also works frequently as a professional pianist with The Russell Alan Rowe Trio, and can be seen featured in several local and regional television commercials.

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Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works) is a resident professional not-for-profit theater in Evanston, founded in 1980. The company’s mission is to produce and present musical theater from a variety of world traditions. All productions are presented in English, with foreign works done in carefully edited modern translations. Maximum scholarship is employed to preserve the original vocal and orchestral material as well as the spirit of the original text whenever possible. Audiences know that at Music Theater Works they will experience repertoire often unavailable on the stages of commercial theaters and opera houses, in modern productions with professional artists and full orchestra.

# # #

Music Theater Works’ mission is to produce and present musical theater from a variety of world traditions, to engage the community through educational and outreach programs, and to train artists in musical theater.

# # #

REVIEWS

Chicago Sun-Times
June 4, 2017
By Hedy Weiss

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

‘Candide’ muses brilliantly on best (and worst) of all possible worlds

We live in “the best of all possible worlds.” That is the mantra expounded by Dr. Pangloss, the irrepressibly optimistic philosopher at the center of “Candide” — the Leonard Bernstein musical inspired by the work of Voltaire, the 18th century French Enlightenment philosopher whose razor-sharp wit and biting irony feel freshly minted.

To be sure, to those entering Evanston’s Cahn Auditorium on Saturday evening just hours after the latest terrorist attacks in London hit the headlines, Pangloss’ pronouncement sounded more ludicrous than ever. But that is just as it should be. For as “Candide” unspools in an extraordinarily fine Music Theater Works production, this brainy musical — with its ravishing score that is the work of a bevy of musical and verbal geniuses — Pangloss, along with his favorite student, Candide, and most of their fellow travelers, are subjected to all the worst that their fellow man can dish out.

That includes war, torture, exile, theft, pestilence and personal betrayal. And cataclysmic natural disasters will be visited upon them, too, prompting these eternal questions: If God is all-knowing and omnipotent, why is there so much cruelty, pain and injustice in the world? And is the existence of evil necessary to create our sense of goodness?

This production arrives ahead of the planned worldwide celebration of the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth in 2018, and it would be difficult to imagine a finer warmup. A notoriously difficult show (the original 1956 edition lasted just two months on Broadway), “Candide” makes immense vocal demands on its actors. But the trickiest aspect of the show is finding the perfect tone: a balance of farce, satire and bitter truth culminating in a soaring moment of reconciliation that leaves you with some shred of hope for the future of humanity. Director Rudy Hogenmiller (in collaboration with choreographer Clayton Cross) has worked something of a miracle in that regard, beginning with the use of the show’s irresistible overture to suggest a play-within-a-play “wink of understanding” as the vast cast gradually gathers and gets into costume and character.

“Candide” follows the adventures of the title character, the guileless bastard son of Westphalian royalty whose coupling with the aristocratic material girl Cunegonde gets him tossed out of the kingdom and subjected to a catastrophic series of events that play out in the Old World of Europe during the first act, and in the New World of Latin America in the second. Along the way, Candide has no choice but to question the accuracy of Pangloss’ notion about “the best of all possible worlds,” as Bernstein’s glorious score channels both Mozart and a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan, with ferociously smart, rapid-fire lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Bernstein. (The show’s book is John Caird’s reworking of an original adaptation by Hugh Wheeler.)

The sweet-voiced Ben Barker, pale and thin, gives us a most winning blank slate of a young fellow who demonstrates a remarkable gift for survival and adaptation in his quest for true love, friendship and human decency. He loses his innocence along the way, but not his essential optimism. The spoiled and beautiful Cunegonde (Cecilia Iole, so dazzling as Johanna in Paramount Theatre’s “Sweeney Todd” earlier this season) uses her soaring soprano and comic gifts for a show-stopping rendering of the demonic aria “Glitter and Be Gay,” and survives by being trafficked among a slew of wealthy powerful men. (The show’s feminist message is well ahead of its time.) And then there is the old woman who nurses Candide along the way, and has only one buttock to show for a lifetime of monumental efforts at survival. She is played with immense panache by Emily Barnash (winner of two regional Metropolitan Opera competitions), who brings down the house with “I Am Easily Assimilated.”

Gary Alexander does an expert job in the dual role of the narrator (Voltaire) and Dr. Pangloss. Raymond Goodall is full of spirit as Cacambo, Candide’s only truly loyal friend. Billy Dawson is Cunegonde’s perfectly ruthless, narcissistic brother, Maximilian. Abby Murray Vachon is a zesty Paquette, the maid who infects Pangloss with lust (and germs). And Russell Alan Rowe is a hoot as Martin, the man who wins the “most miserable” competition.

The individual voices here are superb, and when the cast of 26 join forces — riding high on the formidable 24-piece orchestra led by Roger L. Bingaman — their clarion sound and the beautiful finale, “Make Our Garden Grow,” are enough to reinforce your belief in mankind, if only for the moment.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

Chicago Tribune
June 4, 2017
By John von Rhein

Energetic ensemble sparks Evanston troupe’s season-opening ‘Candide’

In this best of all possible worlds, there is no such thing as a truly definitive version of “Candide,” only earnest approximations of the wonderful if problematic Leonard Bernstein musical that opened the 2017 season of the Evanston-based Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works) on Saturday at Cahn Auditorium.

“Candide” has always walked a precarious line between its book, an adaptation of Voltaire’s scathing attack on Enlightenment optimism, and Bernstein’s witty, richly tuneful score, an operetta-style satire with plentiful nods to Gilbert and Sullivan, topped with a dollop of Latin-American dance.

A flop on Broadway when it opened in 1956, one year before “West Side Story,” the show has gone through a bewildering number of salvage operations over the years. Lillian Hellman’s original book was scrapped in favor of a Voltaire-adapted libretto by Hugh Wheeler. Over the years no fewer than six lyricists, including Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein himself, have stirred the bubbling broth.

Although Bernstein put his stamp of approval on a “final revised version” of “Candide” in 1989, a year before his death, the show seems destined to forever remain a work in progress, its picaresque scenario fair game for whatever nips, tucks, additions, subtractions and Bright Ideas stage directors choose to heap on its sprawling incoherence.

The new staging by Rudy Hogenmiller, Music Theater Works’ artistic director, is based on the production by British-based director John Caird that was first performed in 1999 at the National Theatre in London. We are given more music and text than in any previous Chicago production I’ve seen in recent years, including Harold Prince’s circusy extravaganza at Lyric Opera in 1994 and Mary Zimmerman’s idiosyncratic trope at Goodman Theatre in 2010.

One isn’t sure Hogenmiller’s retention of several windy monologues adds more than length to a show that, at nearly three hours, including a single intermission, tests an audience’s attention.

His “Candide” may be short on chuckles but is long on the perky musical-comedy exuberance that has long been the director’s signature. The show-stopping song-and-dance ensembles devised with choreographer Clayton Cross — “Auto-da-fe,” “I Am Easily Assimilated” and “What’s the Use?” — lighten the mood just when the plot threatens to bog down in the woeful catastrophes that beset the journey to enlightenment undertaken by the naive young hero Candide and his beloved Cunegonde.

Stage-managing it all, quite literally, is Voltaire himself, handing out costumes and props to the cast members during the overture, stepping into the action and providing the linking narration as his alter ego, Dr. Pangloss, Candide and Cunegonde’s idealistic tutor, who insists that everything happens for the best in this best of worlds, including his own sickness, torture and execution.

Gary Alexander, a Music Theater works veteran, negotiated the demanding dual role with a verbal, vocal and dramatic acuity that kept the pace brisk despite the show’s tendency to lose its dramatic compass. I missed the wry irony others have brought to this wordy part, but with stage presence this good, who’s complaining?

Ben Barker’s sweet, musically true tenor and fresh-faced innocence made him a winning Candide, although he failed to quite touch the heart in the low-born youth’s lament for his lost love and also in his bitter disillusionment once he realized her true nature. He made amends when leading the ensemble in an affecting “Make Our Garden Grow” finale.

The spirited soprano and hoofer Emily Barnash nailed her big number and monologue as the Old Woman with one buttock (don’t ask), while another company stalwart, Billy Dawson, preened up a storm as Maximilian, Cunegonde’s snobbish brother. Abby Murray Vachon made a somewhat bland Paquette. The very funny Russell Alan Rowe, another singing actor familiar to audience regulars, roared marvelously as the cynical Martin, Pangloss’ philosophical polar-opposite. The promising music comedy performer Raymond Goodall danced and sang a lively Cacambo.

Cecilia Iole seemed miscast as Cunegonde. The soprano brought secure high notes and clean coloratura technique to the score’s most famous aria, “Glitter and Be Gay” — give her that. But the heavy amplification — a nagging problem throughout the show — rendered her sound brassy and squeaky. Worse, the stage direction turned her character into a cackling hysteric, desperately adorning herself in jewelry like some demented Marguerite in Gounod’s “Faust.” Iole is a vivacious performer, no question, but Hogenmiller leached likability from the character, leaving only Cunegonde’s insatiable weakness for baubles and riches.

The 24-piece orchestra under Roger L. Bingaman inflicted serious mayhem on the famous overture but redeemed itself with tidier, spirited playing later on. The design team — including Adam Veness (scenic and technical director), Alexa Weinzierl (costumes) and Andrew H. Meyers (lighting) — combined stylish period attire with modern theatrical fillips, making resourceful use of a clever split-level unit set and various crates and trunks. Don’t miss the cuddly toy sheep.

Warts and all, Music Theater Works is giving us a fun, frothy-serious summer entertainment. Not bad as the unofficial start of Chicago’s celebration of the Bernstein centennial, which officially arrives later this year.

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Chicago Reader
June 7, 2017
By Albert Williams

Leonard Bernstein’s operetta—premiered in 1956 and much revised over the decades—uses a buoyant, quasi-classical score to illustrate Voltaire’s 1759 philosophical satire, about a naive young man whose optimistic ideals are shattered by the harsh realities of war, religious persecution, and the infidelity of his lover, Cunegonde. Bernstein’s score—featuring lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Bernstein himself—is a dazzling pastiche that evokes the work of Mozart, Offenbach, Strauss (Johann and Richard), and Mahler. Director Rudy Hogenmiller’s staging for Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works) is a triumph, striking a near-perfect balance between the score’s elegant exuberance and the pitch-black humor of the script (crafted by John Caird for a 1999 Royal National Theatre production). The excellent principals include Gary Alexander as the patter-singing narrator Voltaire, Ben Barker as Candide, and Cecilia Iole, who scores a home run with her coloratura aria “Glitter and Be Gay,” as Cunegonde. The choral singing is superb, and it’s a treat to hear Bernstein’s music played so well by a full orchestra under Roger L. Bingaman’s baton.

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New City
June 9, 2017
By Dennis Polkow

The Best of All Possible Bernstein Scores Heard to its Best Musical Advantage

America’s most important music figure was many things to many people: conductor, composer, pianist, educator, author, television personality, international bon vivant. But if you asked Leonard Bernstein how he self-identified, he thought of himself as a composer.

The music world is already gearing up for the Bernstein centennial next year, which looks to be shaping up to be a reevaluation of Bernstein the composer. That means performances of his symphonies, choral works, chamber works, song cycles, ballets and the like.

Bernstein’s Broadway shows, however, are in no need of reassessment as works such as “West Side Story” and “Candide” have never fallen fully out of fashion.

And yet, even those broke the boundaries of the form, particularly in terms of how elaborate and through-composed much of the music was and the extraordinary demands they made on those performing them.

Based on the Voltaire novella that sought to lampoon 18th century optimism, “Candide” was written for Broadway in 1956 and ran a mere 76 performances, although the magnificent original cast album and the emergence of the show’s overture as a symphonic staple kept the show musically popular.

Songs such as the torturous coloratura aria romp “Glitter and Be Gay” (Dick Cavett used an instrumental of this as his television theme song), the infectiously clever “The Best of All Possible Worlds” and the spine-tingling and poignant “Make Our Garden Grow,” remained popular.

Hal Prince oversaw revisions of the work in the early 1970s that replaced the original book, both a one-act Broadway version, and a two-act “opera house” version which was further revised in 1982, the version that Lyric Opera presented here under Prince’s own direction back in 1994. Prince thought the original “Candide” was too stuffy, so he sought to make it a bawdy comedy rather than the cerebral satire it originally was.

Bernstein himself had allowed but had nothing to do with these revisions, where half of his music ended up on the cutting room floor and the rest re-ordered. “In trying to eliminate what was admittedly a confusing book,” Bernstein told me in 1985, “the adapters also began tinkering with lyrics and where particular songs should be heard in the show, eliminating the overall musical architecture of the work, at least as I imagined it, and also tipping the work in too comedic of a direction.” The composer set out to correct this with his own “final revised version” which he completed and recorded mere months before his death in 1990, but that version has yet to be heard in Chicago.

Nearly a decade later, London’s Royal National Theatre revised “Candide” with the goal of sticking as closely as possible to Voltaire’s original novella while keeping the songs as Bernstein’s “final revised version” had intended: a “Candide” that may, at last, be the best of all possible worlds.

It is this extraordinary version which can be heard this weekend presented by the Evanston-based Music Theater Works, formerly Light Opera Works. Experiencing this elaborately-staged production with its luxurious twenty-four-piece orchestra (Goodman’s elaborate Mary Zimmerman production, by contrast, only had eight pieces) and a cast and chorus that so exquisitely renders the musical challenges of what Bernstein himself told me was his own favorite score, his own “American singspiel,” is a rare and wonderful treat.

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Around the Town
June 4, 2017
By Alan Bresloff

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

I get great pleasure writing my review of a production when it is a special one. It is not always the case, but I know that when I attend a production of Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works), I am in for a treat. Due to a hectic schedule, I was unable to attend the opening night festivities at Cahn Auditorium in Evanston, but was able to sneak into the final “dress” on Friday. There was indeed an audience present—groups bussed in from as far as Milwaukee to witness the show and allow the actors to get reaction to the wonderful direction of Rudy Hogenmiller. The show—Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide”, with a book by Hugh Wheeler (adapted form Voltaire) and lyrics by Richard Wilbur. There are also some lyrics by Bernstein himself along with Stephen Sondheim (you can tell which are his), Lillian Hellman (yes, THE Lillian Hellman), Dorothy Parker and John Latouche. This list alone is reason to take the trip to Evanston for this brilliant production.

“Candide” is a take on Voltaire’s satire on the human condition, as it deals with forbidden love, the sale of people, The Spanish Inquisition, Anti-Semitism, power struggles, war, love, sex, sex, war, prostitution (both sex and political) and of course a happy ending. The storyline is not as important as the beauty that is put on the stage by Hogenmiller and his staff. Adam Veness has designed a wonderful set (fitting for any major theater company) and the lighting (Andrew H. Meyers) and sound (Aaron Quick) are as perfect as sound and lighting can be. Alexa Weinzieri’s costumes are in one word “amazing”! I doubt that Lyric Opera could do as well and they have lots of money to work with. In fact, I am always stunned by the wardrobe and technical aspects the “Music Theater Works” (must get used to the new name) has, since they are a small budget company—they spend right, for sure!

Roger L. Bingaman and his orchestra, as always fill Cahn Auditorium in Evanston with the sounds that were written by the composer and do so with love. This is not an easy score, but this company “gets it”! The choreography by Clayton Cross is also one more step to the perfection that audiences have learned to expect from this company. Let us talk about the company. The overture is one that is sung rather than played (as most musicals are, BUT to be honest, “Candide” is more of an opera than a musical) and at the opening we meet Voltaire (brilliantly played by Gary Alexander, who also portrays Voltaire’s alter-ego Pangloss). He opens a trunk and takes out costumes and props as actors take the stage, picking up their character (thru this piece) and allowing us to meet many of the people who the story will contain. During the first act, we visit Westphalia, Bavaria, Holland, Paris, Vienna, Portugal, Lisbon and Spain. Act two takes us to Montevideo, Paraguay, Eldorado, Surinam, Venice and a valley in the Carnian Mountains (where we do get our happy ending). Despite all the travel, it is the characters that create the magic—not where we are (but who we are watching being there).

The ensemble appears to be a cast of hundreds, but in reality in addition to Mr. Alexander there are 25 players. Our main character is “Candide” (deftly handled by Ben Barker, who has a vocal range that will floor you). He is a “bastard” that is being raised by a wealthy family. He is in love with Cunegonde (the delightful Cecilia Lole) and the majority of the story is his having to leave his home, knowing that it has been destroyed and in search for a life and possibly her love. He is joined by a new friend Cacambo (Raymond Goodall is a delight to watch) and the Old Woman (I fell in love with the delightful Emily Barnash, and so will you) who as it turns out is the greatest of assets.

The other cast members, for the most part, play many roles and are as fast as changing costumes as they are in changing characters. Without this ensemble, there is no way that this production can shine so brightly-Amy Jo Barrett, Teaira Burge, Alex Christ, Katherine Dalin, Billy Dawson, Jordan DeBose, Erik Dohner, Brian Healy, Austin Dorman, Anna Dvorchak, Caitlyn Glennon, Stephen Hobe, Dennis Kalup, Cary Lovett, Johanna Moffitt, Rick Rapp, Rebekah Rawhouser, Russell Alan Rowe, Gabrielle Sarcone, Derek Self and  Abby Murray Vachon—they are terrific!

This is a romp thru history and Bernstein’s music and the lyrics by the amazing writers he assembled to make this happen are outstanding. It is a long production—each act is over an hour-fifteen minutes with a 20 minute intermission, BUT, it moves so quickly, it never feels long. Being at a special viewing where I may have been the youngest audience member (and I am almost 75), I noticed no one was sleeping and everyone was talking at intermission that they could not believe that the first act was over an hour. That is a tribute to the writer, the director and the cast!

Now, for the bad news. “Candide” is only around for a few performances, so if you want to see this sterling production, you only have until June 11th (yes, that is correct, June 11).

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ChicagoCritic.com
June 3, 2017
By Tom Williams

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Stunning production is a comic operetta fit for an opera house

Music Theater Works first show of 2017 is, ironically, Candide an operetta with music composed by Leonard Bernstein, based on the 1759 novella of the same name by Voltaire. The operetta was first performed in 1956 with a libretto by Lillian Hellman; but since 1974 it has been generally performed with a book by Hugh Wheeler which is more faithful to Voltaire’s novel. The primary lyricist was the poet Richard Wilbur. Other contributors to the text were John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Stephen Sondheim, among others. Candide is an art piece that is produced due to its stunning music and terrific singing. Opera houses and schools love this show. The present production at Cahn Auditorium is fabulous! True, it is almost 3 hours long but the quality of the music, singing and fine staging make for a wonderful evening.

With Voltaire (Gary Alexander) narrating the story, the overture becomes filled with the multitude of characters who populate the show in a tremendous opening that pulls us into Candide’s story. With an eight door set featuring two bookcases in a brown wooden set (design by Adam Veness) and lavish 18th Century costumes by Alexa Weinzierl complete with wigs and tri-corner hats, Candide has a light, frivolous look perfect as a backdrop for Bernstein’s infectious score.

Candide embraces Voltaire’s philosophy of optimism as he proclaims “Life is Happiness Indeed.” No matter what happens to Candide, “The Best of All Possible Worlds” is his credo. Banished from his homeland, captured by Bulgarians, beaten and left for dead by the Spanish Inquisition, robbed of everything he owns and torn repeatedly from the woman he loves, young Candide just won’t give up! After all, everything is for the best in this “best of all possible worlds.”

Ben Barker, as Candide, has the boyish good looks with a winning smile, tall and lean with a fine tenor voice able to navigate Bernstein’s complex score. With charm and innocence to spare, Barker captures our hearts as the naive foolish optimist. The duet, “Oh, Happy We” with Cecilia Lole (Cunegonde) proclaims their love. Lole was equal to the role of Cunegonde who uses her sensuality to survive. She lands “Glitter and Be Gay” deftly and her chemistry with Emily Barnash’s, The Old Lady produced memorable moments. Barnash’s presence produced a wonderful “I Am Easily Assimilated” ensemble number that featured cute dancing and fine harmonies.

Barnash and Lole delivered the satirical “We Are Women” effectively while Raymond Goodall’s Cacambo (one of Candide’s trusted friends) demonstrated his excellent tenor range in “Ballad of Eldorado.” The ensemble featured excellent harmonies, cute dances and many funny satirical moments.

Gary Alexander, as Voltaire, did terrific work as the narrator and used his smooth voice effectively. Alexander anchored the story and kept the pace moving coherently. Russell Alan Rowe,  as Martin, landed the cynic’s point of view nicely to complement Candide’s rosy philosophy.

Candide is an operetta where the Bernstein music dominates and the lyrics supply humor and emotions. Ben Barker shines as Candide as he marvelously sings “Nothing More Than This.” “What’s the Use” and “Make Our Garden” grow..Barker is a major talent!

Candide is a spectacle where music and lovable characters dominate in a satirical commentary on human values. Optimism and the resilience of the human spirit where nice guys get to finish triumphantly dominate as we rejoice as good wins over evil. The journey is made pleasurable with Bernstein’s masterful melodies played brilliantly by Music Theater Works’ 24 member orchestra.conducted by Roger L. Bingaman.

Get to see Candide this week only to witness the last major operetta of the 20th Century that has the fun and humor of a traditional Broadway musical comedy with a lush score by Leonard Bernstein. This is a glorious production fit for everyone. It is one of the finest shows ever by Musical Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works).

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Chicago Theatre Review
June 6, 2017
By Colin Douglas

The Best of All Possible Worlds

This visually captivating and audibly stunning production of Leonard Bernstein’s operatic treatment of Voltaire’s classic satire of 18th century optimism may be one of Music Theater Works’ (formerly Light Opera Works) best of all possible musicals. One would have to be made of stone not to laugh at some of the bawdy hilarity and cleverness of this production or be impressed by the sheer talent and musicality found in this 1999 version from London’s Royal National Theatre. Staged by Rudy Hogenmiller, musically directed and conducted by Roger L. Bingaman and choreographed by Clayton Cross, this production is sheer magic. But the problems, as ever, lie with the piece, itself.

This musical, which is far more akin to being called a comic operetta, originated in 1956. It put the name of Leonard Bernstein on the lips of every musical theatre aficionado, preceding his later, more popular works, like “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town” and his magnum opus, “West Side Story.” Based upon Voltaire’s 1759 novella, the musical’s original script was written by Lillian Hellman. In 1974, a markedly different version of the piece featured a book by Hugh Wheeler, which was far closer to Voltaire’s story. Because its book has always been considered the show’s biggest problem, the years have seen script revisions attributed to John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John Caird and even Bernstein himself. In addition, there has been a large variety of musical contributions over the decades, with lyric changes to some of the songs remaining constant in each version of the musical.

But, with the exception of the more streamlined 1974 Broadway edition, in which many of the songs were simply eliminated, another problem for most theatergoers is the long-windedness of this work. The story begins with Voltaire introducing the principal characters of his story. We meet Dr. Pangloss, the Westphalian court tutor, who has the responsibility of teaching philosophy to his young charges, the optimistic ideal that this is the best of all possible worlds, regardless of what may befall them or whom they may encounter. His students include Candide, the Baron’s illegitimate nephew; the Baron’s beautiful daughter, Cunegonde; his vain, self-obsessed son, Maximillian; and Paquette, a very obliging servant woman. Candide and Cunegonde fall in love, but throughout an endless series of subsequent conflicts, calamities and tragic occurrences, the lovers meet, are torn apart, reunite and are again separated. We’re introduced to a number of supporting characters, the most memorable being the Old Woman (who has only one buttock). Suffice it to say that this three-hour re-creation of London’s 1999 adaptation is sometimes delightful and funny, sometimes simply cloying and tedious, but always beautifully staged, sung and danced.

Every single performer in this brilliant production is stellar.  Each ensemble member plays a multitude of roles that involve intricate choreography, demanding vocal talents and lightning-fast costume changes.  Russell Alan Rowe, as Martin, the cynical townsperson, Raymond Goodall, as Cacambo, Candide’s friend and servant particularly stand out. A familiar face from many Light Opera Works productions, Rick Rapp shows off his versatility and vocal talents as the Baron, the Dutch Minister, Don Issacar and the King of Eldorado.

As Cunegonde, one of musical theatre’s most vocally demanding and challenging roles, Cecilia Iole effortlessly sails through this difficult Bernstein score, particularly exciting and playful during her schizophrenic aria “Glitter and Be Gay.”  Handsome Ben Barker is all wide-eyed innocence and earnest devotion in the role of Candide, his strong tenor voice particularly moving in the stirring, “It Must Be Me,” “Nothing More Than This” and the show’s magnificent finale, “Make Our Garden Grow.” Both actors nicely complement each other, making us really care about their plight amidst all the silliness that surrounds them.

Talented Equity guest artist Gary Alexander, who has become a much-welcome face at ShawChicago, plays the tireless, dual narrative roles of Voltaire and Dr. Pangloss with panache and authority. But, not only are his two characterizations filled with fun and youthful authority, Mr. Alexander demonstrates his own splendid, well-trained vocal skills. Billy Dawson has a field day as Cunegonde’s snobby, egotistical brother Maximilian and Emily Barnash, a bit too young for the role, portrays the sassy but nameless Old Woman. She’s a vocal talent who’s only been recently seen performing with this company, but one would hope to find her on stages around Chicago from now on. She easily masters her broad humor and thick dialects, particularly in the show-stopping production number, “I Am Easily Assimilated.” Abby Murray Vachon does well in the featured role of Paquette, especially making the most of her musical soliloquy, “What’s the Use.”

In addition to Hogenmiller’s spot-on direction and Bingaman’s brilliant musical guidance, including leading his gifted 22-member pit orchestra, kudos go to Clayton Cross for his intricate, stylish choreography, Adam Veness for his inventive, very theatrical scenic design, Alice Salazar’s fashionable wigs and hair and Alexa Weinzierl for her amazing profusion of whimsical and anachronistic costumes. All-in-all this adaptation of a challenging, seldom-produced American classic, that borders on operetta, is a musical delight. Despite its length and episodic structure there’s much to enjoy in this Best of All Possible Worlds.

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Chicagoland Theatre Review
June 4, 2017
By Dan Zeff

Evanston – For more than 60 years “Candide” has been a major problem child for American musical theater. Some of the great names in American music and literature have contributed to the show, beginning with composer Leonard Bernstein, with further creative credits filled out by cultural icons like Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman, and Dorothy Parker. “Candide” has been revised and tweaked many times since its 1956 Broadway premiere, and the result has always been a frustrating blend of the brilliant and the boring.

In 1999, the Royal National Theatre in Great Britain created its own adaptation of “Candide,” which has been picked up by Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works) for one of the company’s regrettably short runs. As usual, the show is well sung, well staged, and well cast. It can’t camouflage the musical’s imperfections but it’s still the finest of the several productions I’ve seen. The best audience strategy is to rejoice in the presentation’s good stuff and just ride out the weaknesses.

“Candide” originated as a 1759 novel by the French philosopher Voltaire, who wrote the book to satirize the philosophy of optimism current at the time. That philosophy can the summarized (and is repeated over and over again in the musical) as “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” This line of thinking is promoted in the face of an unbroken series of disasters and horrors that afflict the main characters for nearly three hours of performance time.

The title character is an innocent young man who lives in a castle in Westphalia, Germany. Candide is the illegitimate son of the sister of the castle’s baron and he is in love with Cunegonde, the baron’s daughter. The girl loves him back and they see a life of marital bliss ahead but the baron is aghast at the idea of his daughter marrying an illegitimate young man and boots the lad out of the castle. The depressed Candide tries to make his way in the world, enduring a series of personal afflictions that eventually run geographically from the old world of Europe to the new world of South America.

Intersecting Candide’s journey of calamity are Dr. Pangloss (the tutor of the baron’s son Maximilian), Cunegonde, Cunegonde’s maid (known only as the Old Woman), a confirmed pessimist named Martin, and a kind of handyman named Macambo who attaches himself to Candide as a servant. Cumulatively the characters proceed through an accumulation of frightful abuses including rape, torture, and disease. Finally Candide leads his woebegone band to a farm he purchased high in the mountains. There, he announces, they will put their misfortunes behind them and live in peace, finding meaning in work, in which Voltaire anticipated Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” by almost 150 years.

Beginning with the premiere of the musical, the critical consensus has praised Bernstein’s score and blasted Hugh Wheeler’s book. In spite of all the revisions since 1956, the situation has not changed. Bernstein’s score is superb, starting with the famous overture that provides a musical theme throughout the evening.  But the book, with its sequence of often improbable incidents, is repetitive and tiresome, whether the action resides in the magical kingdom of El Dorado in South America or Lisbon, Portugal, where 30,000 people die in an earthquake.

Aggravating the plodding episodes is a lack of character development that could have bulked up the narrative. Candide starts out innocent and trusting and he remains that way through all his catastrophes until the end of the show. The same is true with Cunegonde The tone of the show also shifts abruptly from time to time. There are numerous bits of humor but sometimes the tone abruptly changes gears to a serious note, like when the servant girl Paquette suddenly lashes out at the brutality that women of her day face every day. Her outrage could have exploded from the most committed feminist of the 21st century. It’s harrowing listening but it seems out of place in its intensity with the rest of the book. In one late scene in Venice, six crowned figures appear out of nowhere and one by one they yield their crowns and decide to return to a better way of life. What they have to do with anything in the show remains a mystery, at least to this spectator.

The first act is the stronger of the two, largely because of the appearance of the Old Woman, performed with towering vocal and comic presence by Emily Barnash, who takes over the show late in the act with a long screed about what a horrific life she has led. The name Old Woman seems a stretch for Barnash, a handsome young woman a couple of decades away from Old Woman-hood.  The tedium of the second act can be laid partly to the reduction of Barnash’s participation.

The role of Candide is handsomely sung by Ben Barker, though as an actor he is trapped in a one-dimensional role. Celia Iole is a fetching Cunegonde, a character not averse to having her body violated from time to time as long as there is some financial advantage from a lecherous aristocrat or clergyman. Iole garnishes the famous “Glitter and Be Gay” coloratura showpiece with some amusing physical flourishes.

Gary Alexander is outstanding doubling as Doctor Pangloss and the story’s narrator, a stand-in for Voltaire. As Martin, Russell Alan Rowe hits the bull’s-eye with his relentless and well earned pessimism. Raymond Goodell provides a breezy presence and a fine singing voice as Cacambo. And Abby Murray Vachon delivers a knockout reading of Paquette’s fierce feminist attack, even though the speech stops the satirical mood of the show dead in its tracks. Billy Dawson has some good humorous moments as Maximilian, Cunegonde’s disagreeable prissy brother.

Director Rudy Hogenmiller has put together the production with style and invention. The choreography by Clayton Cross is a huge asset in injecting energy into the often leaden book and the large chorus delivers Cross’s dance designs with enthusiasm and accomplishment. It’s not their fault that the book is so much of a grind so much of the time. Adam Veness has designed the functional bi-level set and Alexa Weinzierl’s costume designs are colorful and multitudinous and credibly historical. Andrew Meyers is the lighting designer and Aaron Quick designed the sound plan, completing the high quality physical production team. And as always, the large orchestra under Roger L. Bingaman’s direction gives the production a superior professional gloss.

Music Theater Works deserves the highest props for taking on such a problematic show and coming up with an essentially agreeable result. This is a production without a weakness. The problems remain with the adaptation and they may never be resolved. Still, the Leonard Bernstein music is a rich pastiche of opera, light opera, Broadway, and Gilbert and Sullivan. It may be the success of the show resides more in a concert performance than a fully acted effort. Still, there is so much quality work on the Cahn Auditorium stage and behind the scenes that anyone with a serious interest in musical theater needs to give it a look, with only a handful of performances left. Whatever its imperfections, this “Candide” deserves a longer performing life.

 

Candide Jewel Girl