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Monday, November 16, 2009

Candide at Quantum Theatre

Posted By on Mon, Nov 16, 2009 at 4:57 PM

You oughtn't need a reason beyond Leonard Berstein's stunningly crafty and melodic score to see this stage musical based on Voltaire's classic.

The witty lyrics, by poet Richard Wilbur and others (including Stephen Sondheim) don't hurt, of course, nor does director Karla Boos' cheeky deployment of the venue, a former Bloomfield auto-body shop, for all sorts of sight gags. (A big laugh last Friday went to the toy-car-styled shopping cart in which Cunegonde, played by Nicole Kaplan, was pushed about the stage while singing the show-stopper "Glitter and Be Gay.")

And let's put in a word for the fine cast -- and for a theater company that cares enough about this broadly comic operetta's music to have it played live, in this case by a chamber orchestra led by music director Andres Cladera.

The show is good fun indeed. But all its scathingly playful piss-takes on religion, philosophy, warfare and commerce and the people who practice them made me ponder the connections between farce and satire.

Normally we assume the former to be devoid of content -- "just for laughs" -- while the other is busy getting to the root of society's ills.

But Candide is farce as satire, or vice versa, and I think where the two dovetail is in their ascription to humanity of our tendency to follow our basest instincts. Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss is an object of derision, in other words, not only because of his moony "best of all possible worlds" philosophy, nor because of his desire to hump the servant girl, but because he pretends the former justifies the latter.

Innocents Candide and Cunegonde, meanwhile, believe in their own coupling that they adhere to Panglossian dictums, when in fact they're merely following the impulses of young people everywhere. And the rest of the comedy is occasioned by soldiers dragooning the hapless Candide, or raping the hapless Cunegonde; various proper clergymen having their way with Cunegonde; and pretty much everyone else (except for our young protagonists and the boringly content denizens of El Dorado) abusing their power at every turn to satisfy lust, greed or, better still, both.

In farce, the lecher pursuing his lechery is funny; in satire, he's contempible. In Candide, at once broadly comic and witheringly satirical, he's both.

Also, a note on the ending. The musical's prescription for a happy life -- that one work, or "tend one's garden" -- strikes some as out of tune in part because it is sincere (while the rest of the show is broadly ironic) and in part because it is a prescription (whereas the rest of the show is content to tunefully lampoon and caricature folly). 

If that conclusion feels at all rocky, we can blame its originator, Voltaire. Alternately, it might simply prove that the entertainment possibilities of pretended virtue outstrip those of the real thing.

Candide continues through Sun., Nov. 22. www.quantumtheatre.com

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