The first thing you must know about Alliance Theatre’s and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s historic presentation of Voltaire’s 1759 novella “Candide” (Leonard Bernstein’s musical version) is that it is huge, almost cosmic in size and scope. It is performed in Symphony Hall.
The second thing to know is that it has only 12 days of performances (opening night was May 11) and runs through May 20. One reason for the brief run is that this show must be enormously expensive: 170 people at times are onstage, and that includes the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, tucked way upstage. That’s seventeen actors and the full orchestra and chorus onstage. Where’s the space for acting? You’ll see.
One answer that Alliance Director Susan V. Booth came up with to enhance the storytelling is puppetry and film. She engaged New York’s Matt Acheson to serve as Toy Theatre Designer and also to perform as the Puppet Master. What Mr. Acheson does is remarkable; he’s often perched way up in the air in a booth with two giant screens on either side of him. You’ll see.
Gigantic things often start small. Shortly after Ms. Booth began her tenure as Alliance Artistic Director 16 years ago, she dined with Robert Spano, Atlanta Symphony Music Director and conductor for “Candide.” They thought that a collaboration between the theatre and the orchestra at some point would be a nice thing. Major orchestras plan their schedules years in advance and theatres almost that long. But all good things to those who wait.
Voltaire’s satiric novella is about a young man named Candide (Aaron Blake) who’s been taught by one Professor Pangloss (Christopher Sieber, who also narrates) that everything happens for a reason, and this is the best of all possible worlds. Candide, an incorrigible optimist, believes this—for awhile.
He falls in love with a baron’s daughter named Cunegonde ( Alexandra Schoeny), but soon they are separated by a series of catastrophes that involve shipwrecks, warfare, jungle expeditions, and burning of heretics.
I cannot give you the entire plot; instead I shall borrow a quote from Ms. Booth about Voltaire: “He came to a belief that whatever deity was ordering the universe seemed almost to be a disinterested puppeteer.” And elsewhere she says, “ ‘Candide’ is a whopper of a tale with a deeply moving ending of not so much optimistic hope, as resolved resilience. That feels like a parable we could use right now.”
For parents, I’ll mention that there are a few moments of fairly explicit sexuality, so use your own judgment as to whom to bring. Certainly teenagers will be comfortable, and they’ll probably thank you.
This theatre-operatic-concert version (theatre folks call this presentational theatre) of the musical “Candide” began life on Broadway in 1956 with a script by Lillian Hellman. It was not successful. Then a 1974 Broadway revival, with a book by Hugh Wheeler (“A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd”) took off and won eight Tony Awards. That’s the version you will see.
The creative team of the Alliance’s “Candide” reads like a who’s who of contemporary theatre artists, with Tony Award nominees and winners. In addition to Mr. Acheson, there are Sven Ortel’s production design; Daniel Pelzig, choreographer; Todd Rosenthal, set design; Lex Liang, costume designer; Clay Benning, sound designer; and Ken Yunker, lighting designer.
I haven’t said nearly enough about the performers: Aaron Blake is a charming Candide with a golden voice; Alexandra Shoeny stops the show with her stunning coloratura soprano rendition of “Glitter and Be Gay”; Christopher Sieber is polished as the Narrator and Pangloss. Broadway and Atlanta’s Terry Burrell is lovely as the Old Woman, a sort of fairy godmother role.
This sounds corny, but if I were an actor, I think I’d be honored to be in this cast. There are Jeremy Aggers, Kathleen Farrar Buccleugh, Bradley Dean, Logan Denninghoff, Janine Divita, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (a handsome and funny Maximilian), Jimmy Kieffer, Christian Magby, Jeff McKerley, Alecia Robinson, Ben Thorpe, and Corey James Wright. Oh yes, Conductor Spano makes his debut (or perhaps it isn’t) as an actor!
Okay, the two hour forty minute (one intermission) production gets a little slow in parts of Act II; and the plot is a bit convoluted; you might be momentarily confused. “Candide” is never going to be as tight as Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” but what show is?
But my goodness, the music, the sound! You may get chills at moments, especially in the final number “Make Our Garden Grow.” (“And let us try before we die to make some sense of life…and make our garden grow.”)
I must admit that seeing this “Candide” made me proud to be an Atlantan: Most cities could not attempt a production of this size and brilliance. It’s a personal triumph for Director Susan Booth; and I now really believe that the Alliance is “our national theatre with a local address,” as they say.
For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.