Anna Christy, Judy Kaye, and Keith Jameson in Candide(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Anna Christy, Judy Kaye, and Keith Jameson in Candide
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Given that Candide was a resounding flop on Broadway in 1956, it's astonishing that this comic operetta based on the classic Voltaire novella of the same title has had more after-lives than Shirley MacLaine. There is general agreement that the original production tanked because Lillian Hellman's verbose, axe-grinding book was at odds with the alternately gorgeous and witty music of Leonard Bernstein. A new book by Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd) replaced Hellman's for a Harold Prince production of Candide at the Chelsea Theatre Center of Brooklyn. That production, which also featured some new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, moved to Broadway in 1974 and became a hit. (The lyrics for the original version were credited to Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, and Dorothy Parker.)

The Prince/Wheeler version established Candide as a viable musical theater piece, but that doesn't mean that the property hasn't been continually tinkered with over the ensuing decades. New York City Opera is currently presenting a revival of what's described in a program note as "the now-standard opera house version." Any production of Candide that you happen upon is likely to feature different songs and musical sequences than any other; the one constant is Wheeler's book, which has irrevocably replaced the original. (I was in a Staten Island community theater production of the show in 1979, and I sure wish I had stolen the hard-cover copy of the Hellman script that one of my fellow cast members had found in our local library.)

When it was new, NYCO's Candide -- also directed by Prince -- was commendable for Clarke Dunham's sets, Judith Dolan's costumes, Ken Billington's lighting, Patricia Birch's choreography, and a wonderful collection of singing actors in the leads. Happily, the physical production has been revived and the roles of Candide, Cunegonde, Maximilian, and the Old Lady are now in the capable hands and throats of Keith Jameson, Anna Christy, Kyle Pfortmiller, and Broadway's own Judy Kaye. Jameson is a winner in the title role, offering uncommonly beautiful renditions of "It Must Be So" and "Candide's Lament." Cunegonde's brilliant but extremely difficult aria "Glitter and Be Gay" holds no terrors for Christy, while Pfortmiller's solid baritone is a joy to hear in "My Love" and other numbers. As icing on the cake, all three of these opera singers are also fine actors with strong stage presence.

Kaye practically steals the show as the Old Lady; her hilarious performance of "I Am Easily Assimilated" is a highlight, and her comic timing and diction are impeccable throughout. (Is there anything this woman can't do?) Opera singer Robert Ousley is a delight as the Baron, the Grand Inquisitor, the Slave Driver, and the Pasha-Prefect, while theater stalwarts Eric Michael Gillett and Gina Ferrall are a stitch in multiple cameo roles. Stacey Logan is cute and sexy as Paquette. Nanne Puritz and Deborah Lew harmonize prettily as the Pink Sheep, and Christopher Jackson is a vocally plush Lion.

John Cullum in Candide(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
John Cullum in Candide
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The sad news is that the huge combo role of Voltaire-Pangloss-Businessman-Governor-Police Chief-Sage has turned out to be a big mistake for John Cullum at this stage of his career and given the limited rehearsal time of an opera repertory production. At last night's performance, Cullum consistently stumbled over his lines and lyrics, at one point singing nonsense syllables. And though his singing voice is in fine shape for his age, it's not quite up to the more demanding stretches of the score: Despite a few downward transpositions of key, Cullum eschewed several climactic high notes, and he spoke rather than sang most of his part in the "Bon Voyage" ensemble. (Cut entirely is "Dear Boy," Pangloss's song about syphilis, which was included in this production when it was new.) For more than 40 years, John Cullum has had an honored place among the theater's most highly respected talents, but to say that he was ill advised in taking on this assignment now would be to put it mildly.

That Cullum's memory problems are due at least in part to insufficient rehearsal time is indicated by other facets of the production. For one thing, the overall pacing of the performance is off. (Arthur Masella recreated Prince's staging for this revival.) Though the orchestra generally sounds excellent under George Manahan, there seemed to be an intermittent lack of coordination between the pit and the stage last evening; some of the choral singing was ragged and, in the "Auto-da-Fe" sequence, various choristers were singing different sets of lyrics at the same time. However, the choral finale "Make Our Garden Grow" was thrilling.

In and of itself, the New York City Opera's Candide is a worthy production, far more successful than the overly jokey staged concert version of the piece that was presented by the New York Philharmonic last year and telecast by PBS in January. It's a pity that the NYCO revival wasn't more carefully cast and more thoroughly rehearsed. The show will almost surely be tighter towards the end of its run on March 19, so that will probably be the best time to catch it, but note that there are alternating performers in some of the major roles; visit nycopera.com for details.