“All the world’s a stage” doesn’t come from Voltaire, but that famous phrase clearly fits composer Leonard Bernstein’s ambitious musical-theater adaptation of the French philosopher’s 1759 satirical novella “Candide.”
Our titular hero is the banished bastard son of a German aristocrat, who embarks on a globe-trotting, soul-searching quest for “true happiness,” in sweeping pursuit of his lost love (and half-sister), Cunegonde. His is an epic journey, fraught with thrilling misadventures in exotic places like Lisbon, Paris, Montevideo, Constantinople and Venice.
Artistic director Susan V. Booth’s Alliance Theatre rendition, an exuberant collaboration with music director Robert Spano’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, may not boast the proverbial cast of thousands — but it’s comparatively close. Between her acting ensemble of 17, and a multitude of members in his orchestra and chorale, more than 150 people share the Symphony Hall stage to perform this “concert” version of the Bernstein classic.
With little room left for a lot of elaborate scene changes and set pieces, for traditional choreography or a more fluid blocking of the action, “Candide” isn’t a full-blown production by the usual high standards of the Alliance (which has mounted its shows at other venues this season, during the yearlong renovation of its own space). At the same time, in another sense, it’s still somewhat overblown — and, pushing three hours, overlong.
Just following the myriad characters and convoluted details of Voltaire’s original story can be frustrating enough, if not altogether futile. While Booth sustains a suitably “haphazard” physical pace throughout the piece, by the end of the first act, and into the second, a few of the show’s theatrical excursions start to feel less engaging than distracting, arguably expendable and beside the point.
Indeed, “Candide” has always proved to be open to interpretation. The Bernstein project made an inauspicious Broadway debut in 1956 (scripted by Lillian Hellman), and promptly flopped with audiences and critics alike. The 1974 Broadway revival (completely rewritten by Hugh Wheeler) was a smash hit. Other productions over the years have discarded or resurrected whole subplots and musical numbers. Among those credited for contributing lyrics along the way: Hellman, Richard Wilbur, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim.
Through it all, the celebrated score for Bernstein’s “comic operetta” has flourished and endured. Sensationally executed here, under the sure hand of conductor Spano and with polished aplomb by his vast ensemble of musicians, the highlights are many.
Tenor Aaron Blake (as Candide) beautifully delivers the impassioned ballad “It Must Be So.” Soprano Alexandra Schoeny (as Cunegonde) skillfully scales the decidedly demanding aria “Glitter and Be Gay.” The show’s powerful finale culminates with the uplifting anthem “Make Our Garden Grow,” resoundingly performed by the entire company.
Two-time Tony nominee Christopher Sieber (“Shrek,” “Spamalot”) heads the supporting cast, playing both our trusty narrator and Candide’s influential Professor Pangloss. Other Broadway veterans on view include Hunter Ryan Herdlicka as the vainglorious half-brother, Maximilian; Janine DiVita as Paquette, a promiscuous flirt; and Atlanta’s own Terry Burrell (who starred in the Alliance’s “Ethel”) as the Old Lady, Cunegonde’s cunning confidante.
Booth’s quirkiest invention involves prerecorded projections (designed by Sven Ortel) and live puppetry displays (maneuvered by Matt Acheson) to depict the many geographical settings, to simulate erupting volcanoes and sinking shipwrecks, and to shadow or magnify certain character actions or plot twists.
Musically accomplished but narratively muddled, not quite everything works for the best in Booth and Spano’s in-concert “Candide.” Even so, under the circumstances, in what Voltaire often describes as “the best of all possible worlds,” at least the show is a magnanimous effort.
Through May 20. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. $10-$80. Atlanta Symphony Hall (at the Woodruff Arts Center), 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: At once sprawling and constrained.
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