5th Avenue Theatre continues its homage to Leonard Bernstein—part of a citywide festival honoring the late composer—with the rarely produced Candide, a darkly satirical operatta that’s about as different from last month’s screwball comedy On the Town as you can get. Put simply, one has dancing sailors, the other earthquakes, shipwrecks, and bubonic plagues. Though Bernstein’s buoyant score for Candide has aged well with time—he wrote it during a particularly prolific period when he also completed West Side Story—the book based on Voltaire’s novel has changed repeatedly. Broadway audiences in the late 1950s were put off by Lillian Hellman’s grim interpretation, and it continued to receive mixed reviews until Hugh Wheeler rewrote a lighter rendition in the late 1970s, with the help of Stephen Sondheim (lyrics).
Thankfully, 5th Avenue’s artistic director David Armstrong splits the difference by choosing to produce a version of the operetta written by the Brits—John Caird for the UK’s Royal National Theatre—that stays more faithful to Voltaire’s text. The result is a smart, salacious epic with a booming score and voices to match. Stanley Bahorek is impressive as young Candide, a guileless boy on a quest for love and happiness who spends more time in bed with disaster than with his beloved, Cunegonde (an awful name, by the way). Laura Griffith turns in the show’s standout performance singing Cunegonde’s aria “Glitter and Be Gay” with ease—like hitting four high-E flats is the aural equivalent of running out to get coffee. She’s outstanding, and reason enough to see the show.
Candide’s journey takes him from Bavaria to Uruguay, even to the fabled city of El Dorado, until he realizes that optimism, contrary to the teachings of his “master” Dr. Pangloss (David Pichette), is just the “obstinate insistence that all is for the best.” But as twisted as Voltaire’s story gets—they spend a lot of time with an old woman with one buttock—its commentary on class distinctions and true satisfaction is ultimately hopeful; it makes for a worthwhile story to reinvent once again.
Candide runs through June 13 at 5th Avenue Theatre.