Culture Vulture: Candide at the Berkshire Theater Festival

“Wherefore and hence? Therefore and ergo!” Did ever an American musical have more intellectual credentials than “Candide”?

Candide. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler. Lyrics by Richard Wilbur. Other lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and John LaTouche. Directed by Ralph Petillo with the Unicorn Company at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, through August 15.

by Helen Epstein

candide_080sized Becky Webber, Julian Whitley, Kyle Schaefer and McCaela Donovan in BTF’s Unicorn Theatre production of “Candide.” Photo by Amie Conner.

I’m always eager for an opportunity to see the Leonard Bernstein musical and I thought the Unicorn Company, the Berkshire Theater Festival’s young company in Stockbridge, MA would give it a good shot.

Based on Voltaire’s Enlightenment novella, with book by Lillian Hellman, lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Dorothy Parker, and later Stephen Sondheim, “Candide” was billed as a “satiric operetta” when it opened in 1956 — just a year before “West Side Story.” Voltaire’s “best of all possible worlds” — that takes its two young lovers Candide and Cunegonde through the Seven Years’ War, Lisbon Earthquake and Inquisition, rape and death while maintaining their optimism was meant to be read as commentary on the bland Eisenhower Years and concurrent McCarthyism.

The overture has become a staple of the symphonic repertoire; the song “Glitter and Be Gay” — a wild send-up of coloratura singing — a staple of cabaret. The songs and script take pot shots at almost everything — optimism, complacency, marriage, virginity, Westphalia, Bulgaria, the Catholic Church and Jews who pass as Christians (“My father spoke a high middle Polish; in one half hour I’m talking in Spanish,” sings the Old Lady in the song “I’m so easily assimilated”).

“Candide” helped consolidate the career of its then 29-year-old leading lady, Barbara Cook, but was neither a critical nor commercial success. Critics were put off by what Walter Kerr called “a really spectacular disaster” and it closed after less than 100 performances.

In 1973, Hellman’s book was overhauled by Hugh Wheeler and it is (unfortunately) that Broadway rewrite with additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim that has displaced the original at schools and summer theaters such as the Berkshire Theater Festival’s Unicorn.

The great glory of Bernstein’s music is his orchestration. While conservatories and even many high schools have orchestras on hand, most summer theaters do not. The BTF used a taped mini-overture and live piano accompaniment with nary a drum or cymbal. It might have been interesting to compensate for this skewing of the balance of music and drama by stripping down the number of cast members but since this was the BTF’s company of apprentices and interns director Ralph Petillo opted for a replication of the full Broadway version.

I didn’t think it would be possible to ruin “Candide” but, apart from a few good choral moments and the compelling, nuanced performance of Julia Broder as The Old Lady, this production rarely rose above grade school level. Many members of the cast were drawn from innovative university theater programs — some from Brandeis — yet they seemed like amateurs. Almost every stage gesture was a cliche; lines were shouted instead of delivered; the singing was uneven; the actors seemed to have no training in movement.

This “Candide” was another spectacular disaster, so charmless, so disappointing, and painful to watch that — therefore and ergo — we left at intermission. .

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