One of the things that drew Leonard Bernstein to Voltaire's Candide as a subject for music theater in the 1950s was how it continued to resonate strongly. "Puritanical snobbery, phony moralism, inquisitional attacks on the individual, brave-new-world optimism, essential superiority - aren't these all charges leveled against American society," Bernstein asked. Things haven't changed that much.
His Candide has changed a lot, however, over the years. The musical, which started out with a book by Lillian Hellman, went through enormous revisions and transformations before an adaptation by Hugh Wheeler for the Scottish Opera in 1988 won the composer's blessing and took on an air of the definitive. Still more versions could materialize in the future, but this Candide, being given a hearty staging by the Peabody Opera Theatre, holds up nicely. The plot is still zany, the music as glorious as ever. And the message that this isn't necessarily the best of all possible worlds after all - well, a cursory glance at news headlines keeps that awfully fresh.
Director and costume designer John Lehmeyer takes something of a Mel Brooks approach in this production, missing no opportunity to apply some extra bump-and-grind. The manic vulgarity wears a little thin, sometimes distracting from the words or the mood of a scene, but the sheer energy and enthusiasm Lehmeyer generates onstage does have a way of reaching out into the house.
James M. Fouchard's lean set and an illuminated map of the world (Douglas Nelson did the lighting) facilitates the plot's endless geographical twists.
In the role of the fate-thrashed Candide, who learns the hard way about life's imperfect side, Jonathan Manley Hudson didn't always have quite enough tone Thursday night, but phrased beautifully. Heather L. Lockard's Cunegonde revealed personality to spare, if not always the effortless vocal technique to go with it. The way she maintained an exaggerated, low-class accent when she sang often marred the flow of a melodic line, particularly in the "Glitter and Be Gay" show-stopper; a little less character and a little more polished singing wouldn't harm the performance. Same for Sarah D. Martin's gutsy portrayal of the Old Lady.
Nimrod Weisbrod (Pangloss) handled the narrating, acting and singing assignments nimbly. Jeremy Bloossey (Governor of Buenos Aires) hit the mark with a vibrant voice. (This cast performs again tonight, an alternate one tomorrow.) The chorus did potent work, especially in "Make Our Garden Grow"; but, like just about everyone else onstage, encountered occasional disagreements of pitch.
The real star of the evening was the orchestra, which reveled in the brilliant score and responded to Hajime Teri Murai's ever-sensitive conducting with remarkably assured playing.
When: 7:30 tonight, 3 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Peabody Institute, 1 E. Mount Vernon Place
Tickets: $8 to $22
Call: 410-659-8100, Ext. 2