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Quite bawdy: (l-r) Becky Webber, Julian Whitely, Kyle Schaefer and McCaela Donovan in Candide.

All for the Best

By James Yeara

Candide

Music by Leonard Bernstein, book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler, lyrics by Richard Wilbur with additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and John LaTouche, directed by Ralph Tetillo, musical direction by Matthew Stern

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 15

It’s wholly fitting that, while standing at a urinal post-show and after determining that I was a critic (a process best left to the imagination), an erstwhile patron declared, “It was an excellent production and people should see it; write that.” Several other patrons concurred. It’s the best of all possible recommendations for Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of Candide, and a singular occurrence (thankfully) in my 20 years of reviewing.

While the Leonard Bernstein musical has thrilled audiences since Candide’s premiere in 1957, the comic operetta flopped, and the show’s book has gone under several metamorphoses from the Tony Award-winning 1974 Hal Prince-directed production, which streamlined Lillian Hellman’s book. Subsequent productions seem to pick and choose the juiciest bits, and BTF has conceived a fast-paced, “quite bawdy” (as a patron sitting behind me exclaimed after the opening number) and totally arch production that amuses, pleases, and, occasionally, touches an audience with the excellence of the voices.

Under the tight direction of Ralph Petillo (in his BTF directorial debut after his Dickensian roles in A Christmas Carol and Oliver!), BTF’s version fairly flies from scene to scene, narrated by Dr. Pangloss (an able and rubbery-faced Ben Rosenblatt with sufficient comic glee). Pangloss’ overly optimistic philosophy, “This is the best of all possible worlds,” acts as the satirical spine of Candide in all its permutations. The perfect set by scenic designer Erin E. Kiernan, a blue, red, yellow, green, and orange multilevel jungle gym, complete with ladders and rotating boxes—only the slide and the rope ladder were missing—gives the nimble cast of 20 plenty of choice entrances, exits, and lazzi to keep Candide flowing; costume designer Jessica Risser-Milne starts the cast off in private school uniforms, which the amorous Dr. Pangloss takes full and frequent advantage of. Candide is full of conjugations and copulations of all sorts, both with its irregular verbs and pluperfect versions. The stagecraft in general is as tight as the musical’s action is sprawling.

The acting throughout is energetic and big; the ensemble members are fantastic in flipping from exaggerated comic expressions—almost like Commedia masks—to serious deadpan as the need be, whether as horny students, apt pupils, ravaging soldiers, randy pirates and prelates, mercantile prostitutes, or unscrupulous merchants. Becky Webber is nimble as the bodacious maid Paquette, launching herself full-bore into every scene. Her energy and focus are shared by Kyle Schaefer as the fabulously handsome and narcissistic Maximillian and Julia Broder as The Old Woman with one buttock (a great sight gag that Broder uses to full advantage). Julian Whitley is in great voice as Candide, and shows that he has mastered the deadpan expression and, in the essential role of Candide’s love interest/raison d’etre Cunegonde, McCaela Donovan embodies the acting aesthetic at work here, flipping from deadpan to fully embracing the emotion, then back to deadpan. Donovan has that Kristen Chenoweth quality, presenting sweet naivety one second and wild horniness the next, all in a diminutive package. (Full disclosure: It turns out that I directed McCaela Curran, her maiden name, in a high-school production of The Secret Garden 10 years ago; she looks a bit different now and has gotten married, hence the new last name.)

The singing throughout is very good, but highlights are Cunegonde’s “Glitter and Be Gay,” in which Donovan gets to display both her lovely soprano and comic timing, the company’s “Auto Da Fe,” a Monty Pythonish play on the pleasures of the Spanish Inquisition, and any number of a capella moments scattered throughout this Candide. A splendid time is guaranteed for all, as a patron at the urinal would attest.

 


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