When I was in a literature class in college, a thousand years ago at least, we read “Candide” by François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), a 19th century French writer who’s more familiar under his nom de plume, Voltaire. As a product of and an opposition to the 19th century Enlightenment he proposed reason as an antidote to superstition, fear, and the overwhelming power of royalty and the Catholic Church (especially as exemplified by the Inquisition.)
“Candide” is a satire, which I don’t think I appreciated as a college kid, and this time, I was laughing hysterically at the melodramatic situations, as well as the witty dialogue and song lyrics.
Leonard Bernstein composed the music and his overture is the most popular of the songs of the play. The original book (produced in 1956) was written by Lillian Hellman (“Little Foxes,” “The Children’s Hour” and “Watch on the Rhine ”) with lyrics by Richard Wilbur, with later contributions by Stephen Sondheim, John LaTouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein. The 5th Avenue Theatre’s production book was revised John Caird for the UK ’s Royal National Theatre production, opening in 1999.
Well, enough history. This production sparkles with wit, glorious songs and voices and beautiful staging. The narrator Voltaire (David Pichette), propped up and impishly grinning on the orchestra’s stage edge, introduces Candide (Stanley Bahorek), a naïve, supposed love child of the sister of Westphalia’s Baron ( Eric Polani Jensen), is raised with the Baron’s daughter (and Candide’s true love) the lovely Cunegonde (Laura Griffith) and her brother, the truly Prussian Maximilian (Mike McGowan). They and a tasty wench/maid Paquette (Billie Wildrick) are educated all together by the tutor Dr. Pangloss (also David Pichette). Pangloss is an incurable optimist, believing that “This is the best of all possible worlds” and does his best to inculcate the philosophy into his students.
The Baron finds Candide and Cunegonde kissing and the innocent is thrown out of the castle. Since he so firmly believes Pangloss’ optimistic words, he sets out with no money, no coat and absolutely no common sense, expects kindness from strangers and ends up in Bavaria . Some seemingly beneficent men give him a meal and a sovereign coin, and he finds himself in the Bavarian army, next set to attack the Westphalia Baron’s castle.
Candide is appalled. He wants to run away, and indeed does after he learns that Cunegonde, Maximilian, Dr. Pangloss, the Baron and his wife have all been killed, the women after being repeatedly raped. Unbeknownst to him, Cunegonde was not killed but taken by a Bavarian officer as his demimonde and sold to another when he tires of her; Maximilian is rescued by a monk and accepted into the monastery, and Pangloss is found in a soldier’s hospital recovering from the “pox”, the result of his dalliances with Pacquette. Candide and Pangloss meet again and travel with the kindness of James the Anabaptist (Timothy McCuen Piggee) who is later killed.
The funny thing is, they all consider venereal disease to be a product imported back to Europe by Columbus from the New World , which is a place of unlimited possibilities for wealth (gold, gems and tobacco) and power, and a hellish place of heathens and merciless tribesmen. This is funny because none of them consider the European diseases and brutal colonizing of the New World to be unwelcome by the natives. In fact, the ignorant savages should be grateful for the “enlightenment” the foreign governments, the rapists and pillagers of the people and lands, and the religious zealots bring.
The whole play is a succession of improbable circumstances that bring them together and apart again and again, from Westphalia, Bavaria, Paris, Vienna, Portugal, Spain, Montevideo, Eldorado, Surinam, a Tunisian slave galley, and finally, Venice.
The song “Glitter and Be Gay” illustrates Cunegonde’s regret at being turned into a merry-go-round mistress. She is assisted in her pursuit of the good life by her new assistant, The Old Woman (the incomparable Anne Allgood) in her growing greed and appreciation for the jewels and clothes she is paid with.
The Old Woman is herself a woman stolen from a comfortable Polish childhood home, sold repeatedly and who now virtually pimps Cunegonde to the next promising wealthy man. The Old Woman’s song is “I’m Am Easily Assimilated”, her paean to her life of always landing on her feet, no matter how difficult the situation.
Pangloss and Candide are sentenced by the Grand Inquisitor (Allen Fitzpatrick) to be killed during an auto de fe because the tutor was spouting his philosophy and the student was agreeing with him. A monk overheard the conversation and denounced them for not believing in original sin. Candide is flogged and Pangloss is hung. The Jew who shared Cunegonde with the Grand Inquisitor is tortured and killed. Of course all the lead characters escape and catch a ship for Montevideo.
Candide is duped again and loses everything, all his money and Cunegonde, who has decided to marry the governor. So, our woeful innocent sets out with his manservant Cacambo (Brandon O’Neill) to journey to somewhere and of course, they get lost and end up in the fabled Eldorado where gems can be picked up on the golden streets and the wealth is unvalued by the natives. They leave there with two red, llama-looking mountain sheep loaded with gold and gems and end up in Surinam where Candide loses everything again at the conniving of the Governor Vanderdender (Jensen again) who ships off for Venice. Candide and Cacambo finally get to Venice after traveling on a slave Tunisian galley, where they meets Cunegonde again and all decide to but a little farm, raise vegetables and animals and children. Again, it is the best of all possible worlds.
It’s an altogether wonderful production. The 26 songs are beautifully written and sung. Every person in the cast has a wonderful voice; in fact Don and I were surprised by what a wonderful voice Anne Allgood had, only seeing her before in dramas. We were not surprised at the high quality voices of Billie Wildrick and Brandon O’Neill, having seen them in several musical productions at the 5th Avenue and Olympia ’s Harlequin.
The dancing was spritely and clever, led by dance captain Greg McCormick Allen. The 1950s looking costumes by Lynda L. Salsbury were mostly simple: white dresses for most of the women with occasionally a flash of red or yellow. They were changed by the colored lights. Of course, Cunegonde’s opulent magenta evening gown and extravagant jewelry were shiny and sparkly. The men, except for Voltaire, who upon introduction sported a powdered wig, brocade jacket, hose and tight pants, were clothed in white shirts and suits or sports jackets. Of course, Cacambo and Eldorado’s king wore appropriate native garb. The Grand Inquisitor wore a Jesuit black robe and The Old Woman wore a black dress and scarf. She was the most somberly dressed non-Jesuit.
“Candide runs through June 13 and is well worth the seeing. Call the 5th Avenue Box Office for information and tickets at 206.625.1900 or 888.5TH.4TIX. You may also visit the box office in person or go online at 5thAvenuetheatre.org.