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Glitter and Be Gay

Just like the piece itself, the DVD of last year's starry New York Philharmonic concert presentation of Candide won't please everyone. logo
Life has never been happiness indeed for Candide, the beleaguered bastard child of musical theater and opera. The history of the piece is so convoluted that all everyone can agree on is that Leonard Bernstein composed the music and Voltaire wrote the source novella. The original 1956 Broadway production flopped despite Bernstein's much-admired score and a libretto by Lillian Hellman; a Harold Prince production in the early 1970s, with a new book by Hugh Wheeler, had more success. Various versions of the show contain lyrics by some combination of Richard Wilbur, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim, Hellman, and Bernstein. Why have so many people tried so hard with Candide? Just listen to any part of any cast recording: Bernstein's music, operatic in scope but pure Broadway in its light-hearted theatricality, is wonderful.

Lonny Price directed a concert version of this notoriously difficult piece for the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall last year. That staging made it clear -- as does the just-released DVD version (Image Entertainment, $24.99) -- that Price doesn't have what it takes to make Candide work. But no one ever has; it's not a piece that really can work. It's a picaresque collage of barely related scenes that follow too many characters through too many adventures in too many countries until they end up back where they started -- wayworn, weary, and wiser. If a director doesn't capture the madcap atmosphere of the piece, you get something like the New York City opera's recent revival: rational, clear-headed, concise, and boring.

Whether you love or hate what Price did with Candide, his choices were never boring. He stripped the piece to its barest essentials and presented his own adaptation of Wheeler's adaptation, with some different songs here and some different jokes there. The result was all over the place, and there were many problems: jokes falling flat (Donald Trump officiating at the Lisbon auto-da-fé), a misspelled sign held up by the chorus (where's Cadiz?), and the casting of Patti LuPone as -- well, as Patti LuPone, though she was supposedly playing the Old Lady. Still, Price did tap into the unpredictable craziness that Candide can't thrive without.

The incomparable orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop, is huge and perfect-sounding. Paul Groves is an agreeable, beautifully sung Candide. Kristin Chenoweth, with her flawless comic timing and fine coloratura soprano, was born to play Cunegonde; the staging of her demanding "Glitter and Be Gay" is overly busy, but she still sounds exquisite. Sir Thomas Allen displays real authority, a lush voice, and a surprisingly adept sense of comedy as the Narrator/Pangloss, while musical theater stalwarts Jeff Blumenkrantz and Janine LaManna have the chops for Maximilian and Paquette. The ensemble is made up of a just-right combination of strong singers and strong comedians. The DVD is notable for the superb quality of its letterboxed image; Price also did the video direction, and he skillfully manipulates camera angles to show everyone at his/her best.

Ultimately, he does the same for Candide. Yes, the overture shouldn't have been trimmed for the video; purists will be apoplectic at the casting of musical theater character man Blumenkrantz, who wrings more irony from Maximilian than was ever intended; fans of other productions of Candide will find at least one of their favorite songs cut and/or will fume over the vitiated, ruthlessly modernized book. But Candide is, always has been, and always will be a grab bag. Whether on Broadway or in the opera house, it is seldom done exactly the same way more than once. If Price's concert adaptation is no better than anyone else's, neither is it worse -- and it is, at least, true to the work's wacky, "anything goes" spirit. With Candide, that's about as close as you can get to the best of all possible worlds.

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