This exciting new environmental production of Leonard Bernstein's operatic treatment of Voltaire's classic satire of 18th-century optimism may be one of Chicago's "best of all possible musicals." You'd have to be made of stone not to laugh at the bawdy hilarity and cleverness of this production or be impressed by the sheer talent and musicality found in this streamlined, one-act version directed by L. Walter Stearns and Eugene Dizon. It is sheer magic.
Thanks to the gutting of the playing space (Harold Prince did the same for his 1974 Broadway revival), the audience itself is part of the environment, seated all over the theater with the orchestra plopped smack in the middle with various stages and runways constructed all around it. In this manner the highly competent musicians not only play this difficult score so brilliantly, but also hilariously double as an integral part of the acting ensemble (Percussionist Phil Martin is particularly fun to watch). The 13-member cast actually performs with, around, inside of and over the top of all the instrumentalists. This inventive staging simply has to be seen to be appreciated.
Every single performer in this brilliant production is stellar. Each ensemble member plays a multitude of roles that involve intricate choreography, demanding vocal talents and lightning fast costume changes. However, as the Grand Inquisitor and a Spanish Don, Joseph Tokarz stands out with his beautifully soaring tenor. Sean Effinger-Dean ably demonstrates his versatility and comic timing over and over again, and beautiful Christin Boulette and Jennifer Tjepkema portray, among other characters, two tongue-in-cheek sexy pink sheep who are reminiscent of television's "Deal or No Deal" spokesmodels.
As Cunegonde, one of musical theater's most vocally demanding and challenging roles, recent Northwestern University graduate Caitlin Collins effortlessly sails through the difficult Bernstein score, particularly exciting and playful during her schizophrenic aria, "Glitter and Be Gay." Handsome Ryan Lanning is all earnest devotion and wide-eyed innocence in the title role of Candide, his strong tenor voice particularly moving in the stirring "Make Our Garden Grow." Both actors complement each other, making us really care about their plight amidst all the silliness that surrounds them.
Talented Equity guest artist David Girolmo plays the dual narrative roles of Voltaire and Dr. Pangloss with panache and authority. Jeremy Rill simply has a field day as Cunegonde's vain brother Maximilian and Kristen Freilich portrays the sassy but nameless Old Lady mastering her broad humor and thick dialects, particularly in the show-stopping production number, "I Am Easily Assimilated."
In addition to Stearns' spot-on direction and Dizon's brilliant musical guidance, kudos go to Andrew Waters for his intricate, stylish choreography, Kurt Sharp for his inventive scenic design, Mark Linenberg's fashionable wigs and hair and Bill Morey for his profusion of whimsical and anachronistic costumes. Picture a Candide dressed in a peasant's blouse, period knickers and high-top sneakers and you have the essence of this clever, Monty Pythonesque adaptation of a seldom-produced American musical classic that begs to be seen more than once.