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‘Candid’ Soars...and Stumbles : Theater review: A sometimes dazzling but uneven production has a warm and inspirational signature.

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

“Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale of Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 musical “Candide,” is among the most breathtaking theater songs ever written. As in Voltaire’s exquisite short masterwork, from which the musical is adapted, the hapless innocent Candide and his all-too-corruptible love Cunegonde are finally reunited after a separation that includes earthquake, rape, prostitution, thievery and an auto-da-fe. Candide, who has been heretofore faithful to a ludicrous doctrine from his teacher Dr. Pangloss, finally finds the courage to shake off optimistic platitudes and embrace the imperfect Cunegonde as she is--mortal, guilty and entirely beautiful.

After an evening full of witty, opulent songs, the stage is cleared for this gorgeous finale. “We must cultivate our gardens,” says the book’s Candide, stoically, after suffering every disappointment a moral and naive young man can suffer. But what is, in the book, only a resigned determination to go on with life, in the musical becomes a glorious--but not sentimental--anthem to honest living, to the shedding of ridiculous illusions.

In Gordon Davidson’s new production of the musical at the refurbished Ahmanson Theatre, the song shines through in its amazing beauty, as the full-voiced company steps forward, momentarily a cappella, to sing, “We’re neither pure nor wise nor good/We’ll do the best we know.” When the hall fills with that glorious harmony, you may feel as if your heart will explode from rapture.

If Davidson’s “Candide” ends with universal truth, it starts out on a provincial note so wobbly that one worries the show will never recover. Cast members, dressed in contemporary black tie, take the stage in a tacked-on prologue to discuss the attributes of the remodeled Ahmanson Theatre, the interior of which is projected on a screen behind them (not exactly an overwhelming image). In dialogue that, understandably, no one is credited with, the actors remind us not only that the newly refurbished Ahmanson is “intimate” but also, and even more condescendingly, that the theater is relevant to our lives. In keeping with that tone, topical jokes, including references to O.J. Simpson and Sen. Bob Packwood, are sprinkled throughout the evening, few of them successful.

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Davidson returns to the show (he directed it here in 1966) in what seems a loose and jovial mood. If he allows in dreck, he also must be credited with exposing the show’s charms by genuinely loving them, as can best be seen in the performances of his two stars.

As Cunegonde, Constance Hauman spans two worlds--she sings her tour de force “Glitter and Be Gay” with operatic power, and acts it with the brassy humor of a musical stage comedian. Morose that she has lost Candide, and dressing for two gentlemen who are keeping her, Cunegonde cheers herself by attaching jewels to her wrists, ears, neck, decolletage and head, until she resembles a chandelier. Hauman hints at an underlying delicacy in the ever-coarsening Cunegonde that allows us to laugh at her and still recognize ourselves in her greed.

As Candide, Kenn Chester at first overplays the character’s simplicity, making him more of an idiot than is necessary. He is diminutive, with a lovely, light tenor, which makes for a sweeter Candide than the one on the famous original cast recording, Robert Rounseville. His performance grows richer throughout the evening.

Nancy Dussault is salty, wise and lovably corrupt as the Old Lady, who helps Cunegonde make her way as a kept woman. She is fine in two comic songs of dissolution, “I Am Easily Assimilated” and the very funny quartet of graft “What’s the Use.”

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Musically, William Schallert makes a fairly wan Pangloss. His “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” an important number early on, lacks energy. He has a paternal and warm presence, which takes some of the bite out of Pangloss, a character whose inane optimism has a natural relevance to certain new age spirituality.

Unfortunately, the set and projections, designed by Peter Wexler, are unattractive. While the scenes change from Lisbon to Paris to Buenos Aires, the background remains the same: a semi-circular frame made up of six balconied windows. The cramped balconies remain pure Holiday Inn under various lights and projections.

The show hits a visual grace note only at the top of Act II, which finds Candide in a balloon that is unable to take off due to the weight of his momentary riches. He lightens the balloon by throwing out one golden sheep after another, while singing the beautiful “Ballad of Eldorado.”

Along with the other marvelous songs, particularly the quartet that ends Act I, and “My Love,” the misogynist’s wooing song (well sung by a somewhat cheesy tenor Roland Rusinek), the score is a jewel and should be heard live at all costs. Few musicals have boasted as many versions and as many authors of book and lyric--a helpful essay in the program sorts them all out.

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Davidson’s version is uneven but occasionally dazzling. In the end, it lifts you up and sends you out with the best of all possible feelings.

* “Candide,” Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Also Nov. 12, Nov. 19, Nov. 26, Dec. 3, 7 p.m.; Nov. 20, 8 p.m.; Dec. 7, 14, 21, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 24. $15-$55. (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-2000. Running time: 3 hours.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Kenn Chester: Candide

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William Schallert Storyteller/Dr. Pangloss/Martin

Constance Hauman: Cunegonde

Nancy Dussault: Old Lady

Sean Smith: Maximilian/Fred

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With: Ann Winkowski, Michelle Murlin, Timothy Smith, Ellen Harvey, Roland Rusinek, Alex Guerrero Jr., Dawn Kehret, Caryn E. Kaplan, Nmon Ford-Livene, Christopher Paul Eid, David Eric, Jennifer Wallace, Jeff Austin, Gabriel Pasos, Scott Watanabe, Grant Rosen, Alayne Faraone, Susan Hoffman, Jani Neuman.

A Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre production. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Lyrics by Richard Wilbur. Additional lyrics by Leonard Bernstein, John LaTouche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman and Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Gordon Davidson. Choreography by Yehuda Hyman. Scenery and projections by Peter Wexler. Costumes by Lewis Brown. Lighting by Tharon Musser. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Musical Director Lucas Richman. Production stage manager Mary Michele Miner.


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