By Maria D’Anselmi
Let’s talk about “Candide.” This operetta based on Voltaire’s novel has courted controversy since its Broadway debut in 1956 and especially now at the University of Dallas. The set of this production is smartly left bare, with a battered and aged wooden frame that observes the nearly nonstop action and drama through the entire show.
The operetta tells the story of young Candide, the bastard son of a Westphalian baron’s sister. He is played with an adorable sincerity in a truly nuanced performance by junior Simon Lemaire. Candide journeys through Europe and America experiencing disaster, betrayal and abuse, and meeting a colorful array of characters, each with an outlandish story to tell.
The music of “Candide” is infamously hard to perform. The naysayers of this play were justified in their concern that the music might be an insurmountable challenge. The cast of “Candide,” however, under the excellent direction of Stefan Novinski and the coaching of music director Dee Donasco, proves them all wrong.
The intimacy of the Margaret Jonsson Theater was just right for the five-piece orchestra that filled the room to the brim with music. These heroic musicians dogged the actors during the songs and were rarely out of sync.
Nobody less than an opera star could pull off “Glitter and Be Gay,” a piece of music that for many sopranos is a technical nightmare. But senior Mary Fougerousse as Cunegonde silenced the 80 stunned audience members in a masterful delivery that sounded effortless. Whilst seemingly defying the laws of what human beings can do with their voices, Fougerousse’s performance was all the more gripping because she acted beautifully.
Preeminent among the supporting cast is Cunegonde’s old lady-in-waiting, fearlessly played by junior Esther Sequeira. The old woman is the embodiment of the play’s two extremes. She provides comic relief (with the lack of certain anatomy and the addition of a delightfully consistent accent), as well as tragedy in the shocking reveal of her past.
Sophomore Ed Houser plays the womanizing philosopher Dr. Pangloss. Houser’s sensual singing and charming smirk made for an excellent portrayal of the pompously charismatic pseudo-intellectual.
Junior James McGregor, who plays the dashing and conceited Maximilian, added extra spice to the supporting cast with confident singing and delivery.
The backbone of Candide is its ensemble. The crew of fiercely talented singers morphed from scene to scene as the inhabitants of whatever foreign land that Candide enters. Various characters drift in and out seamlessly. Seniors Aidan Malone and Joseph Dodd and junior Paul Lewis disappear into their various roles with such dedication that a quick check of the program was required to recognize them.
The ensemble member’s greatest triumph, besides their flexibility, was their vocal support. They muscled through each grand number, creating lush multilayered chords with the precision that only hard work can generate. Bravo!
Now for the elephant in the room. There is no hesitation in “Candide” to show the seedy underbelly of the Catholic Church, especially at the time of the Inquisition. The catchy upbeat number “Auto-da-fé” depicts the ritual of public penance that the Grand Inquisitor and his manipulated followers inflict on the innocent in unabashed realism. There was palpable tension in the room during this number.
A sugarcoating of humor glazes over horrors that both Candide and Cunegonde suffer, which, while making for some great laughs, ultimately intensifies the seriousness of their pain. The pill is easy to swallow but hard to digest, since the subjects and their flaws are very much real. Religion and philosophy are granted no mercy.
A tonal shift was very noticeable and slightly off-putting in Act II. “Candide” went from treating war, rape and corruption with satirical humor, to being far more serious. This was at first confusing but in the conclusion it made sense
Be warned: This show unapologetically slaps you in the face with the harsh reality that the world is an ugly, unforgiving place. No one feels this more keenly than Candide, whose journey is more than geographical. After innocently accepting the optimistic philosophy of Pangloss, every set belief Candide has known is destroyed as he realizes those beliefs simply do not line up with real life. No character escapes a reality check, and the confusion and hopelessness that builds through the show climaxes in “What’s the Use?” This number is especially powerful because of the raw emotion that permeates each singer’s voice. It was immensely satisfying as a viewer to see the characters finally come to understand their world.
Hope glimmers through despair in Candide’s struggle to make sense of the whirlwind of pain and loss. He finds comfort in the shocking conclusion that there might not be an answer to evil. In stark contrast to the unquestioning optimism in “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” Candide has a new outlook: Life is not that simple. During the rich and poignant finale “Make Our Garden Grow,” a chill rippled through the audience as they too came to understand the significance of Candide’s discovery. Amid the horrors the characters experience, there are absolutes that remain, namely friendship, loyalty and love.
In typical UD fashion, the drama department has exceeded expectations with “Candide,” and has set the bar high for performances to come.