First Nighter: Harold Prince Shows Off His "Candide" Again for New York City Opera

First Nighter: Harold Prince Shows Off His "Candide" Again for New York City Opera
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Harold Prince is certainly devoted to Candide as well as being loyal to New York City Opera, then and now. He directed the Leonard Bernstein-Richard Wilbur-Hugh Wheeler-John Latouche-Stephen Sondheim adaptation of Voltaire's pessimistic novella for the NYCO in 1982 and returns to it again for the reconstituted NYCO (nice new logo), at Rose Hall.

Just to be exact, this is not the original 1955 version with Lillian Hellman script. (More about that later.) Just to be further exact, this is not the 1988 version on which Leonard Bernstein put his stamp of approval. (More about that later, too.)

This Candide might be termed the Harold Prince version, and the veteran director-producer does a strong job of entering the much-fiddled-with-over-the-62-years operetta into the renewed NYCO repertoire. (Candide is the first offering of the 2016-17 season. The company website lists nothing else as yet.)

The foremost reasons to adore Candide--is it necessary to point this out?--are the Bernstein music and the lyrics by the four mentioned above (including Bernstein). Charles Prince conducts the orchestra and the singers so that the words and melodies crackle and croon, depending on the mood(s) required. Yes, those aspects are well taken care of.

Once again, Voltaire (Gregg Edelman in long grey wig) presides over Dr. Pangloss (Edelman in shorter russet wig) as he attempts to convince his attentive students that they inhabit the best of all possible worlds. The gullible four are Candide (Jay Armstrong Johnson, full of boyish charm and innocence), Cuneconde (Meghan Picerno, full of innocence transforming into glittering and gay naughtiness), Maximilian (Keith Phares, with knockout baritone) and Paquette (Jessica Tyler Wright, playfully seductive).

Serving to turn Pangloss's optimistic beliefs on their heads are traditionally scene-stealing Linda Lavin as the Old Lady living out her days with one buttock remaining and, as any number of other disillusioning figures, the mercurial Chip Zien and the chameleon-like Brooks Ashmanskas.

They all cavort on Clarke Dunham's set, which more than echoes his previous NYCO incarnation, and in Judith Dolan's fun-loving costumes. Ken Billington's lighting design and Abe Jacob's sound design serve their purpose properly, and so do Georgianna Eberhard's many wigs.

Much more than just enhancing the revival is longtime Prince choreographer Pat Birch. She's charged with dreaming up all sorts of routines that conjure national dances and who-knows-what-all, which she easily does with the large-ish cast.

The drawback to this Candide, however, is a book that keeps on trucking but not necessarily upward. As Candide and gang continually confront situations proving the world isn't so best-of-all-possible, they proceed from one daunting situation and from one far-flung, 18th-century global locale to the next.

By the time the second act is underway, things have become undeniably plodding. The humor has leaked out, and what's left is mighty parched. This goes on until the creators decide they've had the weary travelers trek enough. So the sloggers receive advice from a Sage (Edelman in yet another droll outfit). He advises them that the answer to their struggles is to work. (Why couldn't they have run into him much sooner?)

Whereupon they sing "Make Our Garden Grow"--with, before curtain, the entire cast joining them. The closing number is, if not the greatest ending to a Broadway musical ever, up there in the top five. Anyone exiting a theater unmoved after that soul-stirring anthem had better make his or her next stop a casket.

So much in support of Prince's take on a musical with more history than many more history-laden musicals (like, for one, the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth Merrily We Roll Along). And on to a bit of that background and its leading to an alternate version--Bernstein's supposed preferred version, which was competed in 1988.

Though a thick volume could be written on the subject, let's just say in brief that much agitated activity resulted from the first production's debacle. At that point and in order to try to salvage Bernstein's masterful score with its Wilbur, Latouche and Dorothy Parker(!) words (has Parker been lost in the slow shuffle?) Hellman was removed. But she demanded the contractual understanding that none of the locales she lifted from Voltaire could be used.

At that point, Wheeler had to switch to new locales so that music written to jibe with, say, Paris and Vienna was showing up to blend awkwardly with other places. Only after Hellman's death could a version that reverted to the original settings be restored. Other tweaks were made to the composer's satisfaction, along with the many, many others made along the way from abundant trunk material.

Only Bernstein (not Wilbur, Sondheim or the late Latouche) had the right to determine the final status. That version was seen in several European cities and on a BBC telecast, but never in the states. It may never be seen, since the Prince version (or versions he oversees) will likely continue to prevail. But perhaps it should be seen here--somewhere, some day.

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