PHILADELPHIA — How’s this for an enticing come-on: Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide”? Featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir and the mezzo soprano Denyce Graves?
So, yeah, I hopped on Amtrak and headed to the gorgeous Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, where the revival of this problematic 1956 musical comedy is being staged for three performances, through Saturday. And what I got — apart from some alluring vocal interpretation from the likes of soprano Erin Morley as Cunegonde and tenor Alex Shrader as the picaresque title character — was a lesson in how a classical organization can trip up, coloring outside its accustomed lines.
First off, the setting chosen by director Kevin Newbury and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is so peculiarly cumbersome and confusing that it renders incoherent a musical that’s already a thicket of wearying conceits. On this occasion, Voltaire’s story of a young man who learns by roundabout globe-trotting that this is not the best of all possible worlds has been transposed to a, gulp, high school in 1992. The cultural references woven into the proceedings (skateboarding, Macintosh computers, Barney the Dinosaur) are recognizable, even if “Candide” itself seems to vanish into the wings.
Cooper and Mulligan have been enlisted as narrators, in a semi-staged adaptation of the musical by Lonny Price. As the pair of Oscar-nominated actors sit watching the chaotic shenanigans of this half-“Candide,” half-“Grease” unfold, you have to wonder whether they knew what they were getting into.
It was a coup, of course, securing the services of Mulligan and Cooper: She’s a rising star from Britain and he’s a local boy made good and clearly generous in lending his celebrity to a Philadelphia arts organization of note. But if this magnitude of glamour is going to be applied, you want to ensure that the stars are allowed to convey some attribute beyond the fact that they’re really good sports. Maybe a funny aside or two? Some moderately playful interaction with the cast? Though taste dictates that it not be their showcase, an audience’s yen for some witty acknowledgment of what their presence means needs to be integrated into the evening.
Especially since the “Candide” that the orchestra offers up is as idiosyncratic as such special events can be. Way too idiosyncratic, in fact. “Yannick and I both thought it would be fun (and instructive) to use the late 1980s and early 1990s of our own teenage years as inspiration,” Newbury writes in the program. Okay, but making “Candide” a personal statement mandates that the context be clear to everyone else. It’s an artistically callow notion to imagine that the mere employment of iconography of a specific time and place is all one needs to heighten the relevance of a classic.
This is the inadequate strategy that has been applied to “Candide” — a shame, because as the evening begins, under Nézet-Séguin’s baton, the orchestra’s command of Bernstein’s overture betokens a production of exuberantly excavated riches. Over the massive stage hangs one of those institutional message boards, welcoming us to Westphalia High School and the Class of 1992 (Westphalia being the fantastical point of embarcation). The conductor emerges in a blue-and-gold shirt, a la a high school music director, and we’re off on what seems to be a coming-of-age musical with amusing possibilities.
Except that ideas fly at us as if we’re at an out-of-control school assembly. The stage business is nonstop, anemically set up and distracting. Singers wander on and off, pushing around set pieces of hall lockers and girls’ rooms, while performers erupt in rudimentary break-dancing and the sign flashes graphics that remind us of high school subjects. The story of Candide’s journey to self-knowledge is lost. And there’s no explanation for the satirical musical’s dated and offensive allusions to rape and anti-Semitism; maybe some of this could have been addressed in the narration?
Musically, of course, there are moments of joy, such as when Morley launches confidently into the socko “Glitter and Be Gay.” The choir, 56 strong, fills the hall ecstatically with “Allelluia,” and later, in Act 2, the sultriness of Shrader’s tenor is a match for the lilting “Ballad of Eldorado.” Graves adds a desperately needed dash of bravura in an otherwise rather hectically staged “I Am Easily Assimilated.”
My eyes, though, kept drifting to Cooper and Mulligan, who sat as placid spectators throughout, smiling every now and then. I kept wishing that the enterprise would have me smiling more, too.
Candide Through Saturday at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. philorch.org.