Review: CANDIDE at Music Theater Works

Review: CANDIDE at Music Theater Works

Pictured (l-r): Ben Barker, Cecilia Iole, Gary Alexander, Abby Murray Vachon, and Billy Dawson. Photo by Brett Beiner. 

There are times, for any actor, where the lights dim for opening night, you step on stage, and the energy is … unpredictable. You know the show needed more time, but time is a luxury and that’s not something we have a lot of in this profession. So, you take a breath and you go for it, because what other choice do you have, right?

And “going for it” is what the cast of CANDIDE did Saturday night in what felt more like an early preview than opening night. I was never at ease during the three-hour production, because the actors were never at ease. I could feel the frenetic energy every time there was an onstage snafoo. However, they carried on, fought for their show, and, I will say, owned that Bernstein score. For that, they have my utmost respect.

CANDIDE, Leonard Bernstein’s operetta based on the 1759 French satire by Voltaire, premiered on Broadway in 1956, and currently there are two versions of CANDIDE available to produce. Music Theater Works has chosen The Royal National Theatre’s 1999 version with a book by John Caird based on the 1974 revival book by Henry Wheeling. This 1999 revival features lyrics by 1956s main contributing lyricist, poet Richard Wilbur, with strong help from Stephen Sondheim (who played a major role in the 1974 revival), Dorothy Parker, John Latouche, Lillian Helman (who wrote the 1956 book) and Bernstein himself.

Voltaire’s CANDIDE, was the controversial (and popular) response to the Leibnizian optimism philosophy (or simply “optimism”), and much like the above paragraph on the operettas creator, Voltaire’s story requires incredibly good listening skills.

Still with me? Good.

In a nutshell of optimism, our protagonist Candide (Ben Barker) after a series of life events, and with the help of our narrator Voltaire (Gary Alexander), crisscrosses Europe in a quest to save his true love Cunegonde (Cecilia Iole). Throughout his journey our young hero stays faithful to the teachings of his Master, Dr. Pangloss (also played by Alexander), encounters and reencounters a host of characters and despite all this holds to the optimistic ideal that “all is for the best” even as his life, and the lives of those around him, come into great hardships. Of course, he can’t keep this optimistic attitude up forever, and we see Candide experience a slow and painful disillusionment of Pangloss’ teachings, and eventually settle upon a “best of all possible worlds” approach in which he can cultivate his garden with Cunegonde at his side.

Alexa Weinzierl has created a treasure trove of stunning costumes to support this ever- changing landscape. With such a large cast you wouldn’t expect everyone to enjoy numerous pieces, but they do, and the result is scene after scene of finely tailored, fully realized costumes that add so much life to the worlds on stage.

Weinzierl’s costumes work in perfect unison with Adam Veness’ multi-functional and smart set design. Mix in Director Rudy Hogenmiller’s innovative staging, and we are visually whisked away on Candide’s journey across the lands.

However, the night really belongs to Baker and Iole (and if you don’t know who either of these actors are, you should). Baker’s voice is delicately rich and his falsetto envelopes you. His “It Must Be So” was my favorite moment of the evening. Iole’s soprano is effortless and her versatility reminds me of Rebecca Luker with a healthy dose of Kelli O’Hara and Judy Kuhn thrown in. She brought the house down with “Glitter and be Gay.”

Sharing the stage with Baker and Iole are 24 actors who’s musicality and technique give Bernstein’s score that full, heavenly quality that make it all sound so easy. This is not easy.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Emily Barnash who brings The Old Woman alive with her commanding presence and comedic timing, and Billy Dawson who’s Maximilian was perfectly foppish and perfectly funny.

Vocally and visually the show is a stunner; I only wish I was seeing CANDIDE a week from now, I think with a few more runs under their belt this will be a completely different production and one that wouldn’t have had me holding my breath for three hours.

CANDIDE runs through June 11th. For more information visit

About author

Abigail Trabue

Abigail has worked as an actor/director in Chicago for over ten years, and along with husband Jason Epperson founded Lotus Theatricals in 2015, and PerformInk Chicago and Kansas City in 2016 (where she serves as Managing Editor of both publications). When not talking shop, Abigail is raising three padawans with Jason, drinking lots of coffee, converting school buses into RV's, and eating all the foods at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @AbigailTrabue