Kristin Chenoweth in Candide(Photo © Chris Lee)
Kristin Chenoweth in Candide
(Photo © Chris Lee)
From a musical standpoint, the New York Philharmonic's recent performances of a staged concert version of Leonard Bernstein's Candide were just as fine as you might have expected given that they featured Bernstein protégée Marin Alsop conducting this world-class orchestra, not to mention such soloists as Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth, the up-and-coming operatic tenor Paul Groves, and the veteran baritone Sir Thomas Allen. From a theatrical standpoint, however, the production was just as misguided as you might have feared when you heard that it was being directed by Lonny Price.

Before detailing the glad tidings of this event, let's get the considerable amount of bad news out of the way. In 1981, Lonny Price gave an excellent performance as Charley Kringas in the original Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along but then, a year later, gave a deplorable performance as Hallie in the Broadway premiere engagement of "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys. After that, he pretty much shifted his energies to directing -- though he did have the nerve to allow himself to be cast in the central role of A Class Act, the flop Ed Kleban bio-musical that he co-wrote and directed. Price's most recent Broadway credits (or is that debits?) were the musical Urban Cowboy and the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of "MASTER HAROLD". Over the past few years, he has focused his energies on concert stagings of musicals; among other things, he directed Sweeney Todd for the N.Y. Phil in 2002 and Can-Can for Encores! this season.

Though certain aspects of his Sweeney staging were objectionable, the show worked because, for the most part, Price let a masterpiece play itself rather than mucking up the proceedings with all sorts of obtrusive stage business. Would that the same could be said for his Candide, but alas! -- as the title character or his fair Cunegonde might exclaim -- this was not the case. In a program note, Price reminded us that Voltaire, who wrote the novella upon which the musical is based, himself described the work as "a schoolboy prank." Apparently, the director took this remark as license to go hog wild.

From the moment when a huge banner bearing the word "Optimism?" dropped at the end of the classic Candide overture to reveal the members of the chorus clad in brightly colored T-shirts and sporting those silly plastic glasses with big false noses and moustaches attached, I knew that we were in for trouble. This "concert" was packed with all sorts of funny hats, jokey props, and puerile stage business, not to mention witless pop-cultural references to everything from Some Like It Hot to The Apprentice. (I'm pleased to report that, when Michael McCormick played the Grand Inquisitor in the "Auto-da-fé" sequence as Donald Trump, the bit went over like a lead balloon.)

Even the moments of staging that were truly funny were mostly inappropriate. For example, when Candide was exiled from Westphalia, he packed a suitcase with such items as a baseball glove, a frisbee, and the original soundtrack recording of West Side Story. Unfortunately, all of this happened as Groves sang the achingly beautiful lament "It Must Be So"; as a result, the audience giggled through half of one of the most moving pieces in the entire score. (Can you imagine a director underming the effect of a magnificent piece of music just to get an easy laugh or two? Talk about disrespect for the material!)

Striving valiantly against Price's strained attempts at humor, the cast members were successful to varying degrees. Chenoweth, who has nailed Cunegonde's glittering aria "Glitter and Be Gay" in concert on several occasions, was a delight in the whole role even if her coloratura in that particularly challenging piece of music suffered a bit from such business as her whipping a strand of pearls around her neck. Groves sang the "Ballad of El Dorado," "Make Our Garden Grow," etc. so beautifully as to make the angels weep but he physically played up Candide's innocent awkwardness to the point of overkill. The opposite situation prevailed vis-a-vis Allen as Dr. Pangloss, Voltaire, and the concert's narrator: Though he offered perhaps the best-sung performance of these roles that I've ever heard, Allen was quite bland in terms of stage presence.

Paul Groves, Kristin Chenoweth (held aloft by Michael McElroy)and Patti LuPone in Candide(Photo © Chris Lee)
Paul Groves, Kristin Chenoweth (held aloft by Michael McElroy)
and Patti LuPone in Candide
(Photo © Chris Lee)
That charge cannot be leveled at Ms. Patti LuPone, as she was identified by the chorus's lettered placards upon her pumped-up star entrance. I'm second to none in my regard for LuPone's talents but her performance as the Old Lady in this concert must be ranked as ill-advised. The thick Russian accent that she assumed for the role would have been funny if it hadn't resulted in most of her lyrics and spoken lines being unintelligible. As for her singing, LuPone had some difficulty with the role's high tessitura; this famous belter does have a workable soprano register but she seemed uncomfortable singing up there for any length of time, which doesn't bode well for her scheduled appearance in the title role of Marc Blitzstein's opera Regina under Lonny Price's direction at the Kennedy Center next year. (LuPone starred very successfully in Price's Sweeney Todd and Can-Can, among other collaborations, but whether or not she should continue to place herself in this director's hands is debatable.)

The supporting cast was fine, with one exception. Janine LaManna was a charmingly seductive Paquette while John Herrera and Stanford Olsen sang exceptionally well as the Judge/Aide/Prefect/Governor and Vanderdendur/Ragotski (respectively) but Jeff Blumenkrantz camped outrageously as Maximillian and was wildly miscast in the role from a physical standpoint. I'm not even going to attempt to detail what version of the constantly-tinkered-with Candide score was presented by the Philharmonic but I will say that it was great to have the "Ballad of El Dorado" sung in its original form. (It was also nice to hear Chenoweth and LuPone in the rarely performed duet "We Are Women," which was written for the first London production of Candide.) For the record, most of this comic operetta's brilliant lyrics are by Richard Wilbur, with additional contributions by John Latouche, Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman, and Bernstein himself.

If certain sections of the review above seem harsh, be aware that you'll eventually be able to judge the concert for yourself even if you missed it live at Avery Fisher Hall: The final performance was taped for future telecast.