Enlightenment @ Music Theatre Works

3 Stars out of 4

When American composer Leonard Bernstein sat down to create his landmark work Candide, I think he was harking back to the outmoded form of opera buffa more than he was setting out to create an American Musical.  This regularly reworked entertainment masterpiece, now on view in full fleshed glory in the updated John Caird version by Music Theatre Works (formerly known as Light Opera Works) in Evanston, is at once an amazing work of music, a theatrical exploration of philosophical world views,  and a social commentary boiled down into something of a cartoon. The cartoon aspect, where characters are more icons than people with deep dramatic arcs, comes from the opera buffa form which employed commedia type personalities to tell the story.  Since most of us will never read the Voltaire novella by the same  name despite its ranking in the most important works of western literature, this musical is our only entre to Voltaire’s discourse on class, tragedy and comedy, satire, and ultimately how one frames and reframes one’s existence.

Voltaire, as rendered by the deliciously humorous Gary Alexander,  narrates the plot.  He takes us to meet Candide, played with youthful exuberance into weighted maturity by newcomer Ben Barker. Candide is well born and illegitimate, a young man who possesses endless optimism.   Voltaire is also Professor Pangloss, the philosopher who posits that everything occurs for the best and preaches endless optimism.  Candide is in love with the Baron’s daughter Cunegonde, played here by standout soprano Cecilia Iole handling the wickedly difficult aria with ease and panache.  Kissing her is an unforgiveable offense which gets him evicted from his fine house and inducted into the army where he is severely beaten and then conscripted into a battle against his own people.  He deserts then makes his way to Holland (the evening will take you nearly around the world) where he meets Pangloss again, now crippled with syphilis. Pangloss tells him his entire social set was brutally murdered in the war.   Along with a benefactor they sail to Lisbon where after surviving  near drowning,a volcanic eruption, an earthquake and a tsunami, they come up against the Inquisition.  The song What a Day for the Auto De Fe is a dark and hilarious must see and hear to believe: who knew you could do the Inquisition as a musical?  Pangloss is hanged and a severely beaten Candide flees to Paris where an old woman with one buttock takes him in. Played by Music Theatre works superstar Emily Banash, The Old Woman is the servant of Cunegonde—alive ! who has survived and become a courtesan. After accidentally murdering Cunegonde’s  two patrons, the couple head to Cadiz, where they decide to head for the New World as the act ends.

Candide’s troubles do not end—he does team up with Cacambo,played by Evanston’s own triple threat Raymond Goodall, a clever multi talented valet and friend, while Cunegonde decides to better her fortune by marrying the Governor.  The boys will end up in the fictional city of Eldorado where they will be gifted a fortune only to lose it.  Candide sends his trusty sidekick to ransom Cunegonde and they agree to meet in Venice.   When they all get there, Carnival is in full swing, and when they are unmasked, the main characters see what they have begun.  Candide’s idealization of Cunegonde is shattered.  He grieves then still marries her, planning for a simple farm life. He is no longer the boundless optimist: life is just life and what happens.  The show ends in pathos and acceptance.

 Many a costume designer on Candide has won awards, and this production is no different: the fantastical period-ish costumes byAlexa Weinzeirl are worth the price of admission by themselves, and are perfectly complemented by the wigdesigns by Alice Salazar.  Andrew Meyers’ lighting pairs with Adam Veness’ simple set to give us the world in shorthand. Clayton Cross’s choreography utilizes the multi-platformed set to create vibrant moving pictures. The orchestra, helmed by Roger L. Bingaman brings us Bernstein’s score in full surround sound. Rudy Hogenmiller’s assured direction brings this technically complex evening to the stage with an assured hand.

While some of the singers struggled with lyric clarity and there were several mike miscues the first night, this staging  of one of the most technically demanding shows in the repertoire is extravagant and lovely. It is also timely to contemplate what one’s fundamental philosophy actually  is in a time of great struggle.  The sheer volume of catastrophes in this ultimate road story is a caricature of what most of us face, but in a time where you wake up every morning wandering what else could possibly happen, it is sobering to see that it is not so much what happens to you as how you deal with it that determines your narrative.

Do not hesitate to see this show: Candide only runs through this coming weekend (June 11) at Cahn Auditorium on the Northwestern Campus in Evanston. For tickets and information go to http://www.musictheaterworks.com/  or call 847-920-5360