The applause was unusually tepid on the opening night of Candide—board members, generous donors, artistic directors, Ron Sims, and the other opening-night regulars at the 5th Avenue Theatre tend to spring out of their seats at the first opportunity to congratulate the actors on a job well done and congratulate themselves on their good taste. But most of the crowd stayed seated, and a larger-than-usual number sped immediately for the exits. (Which is terrible etiquette—old rich people should know better. You can make your withering criticisms and write your bitchy reviews later, but the actors who've been sweating it out for the past few hours deserve at least a few seconds of your appreciation.)
I'd like to think the crowd felt uncomfortable about the musical's morals: Wealth is meaningless at best and corrupting at worst, powerful people tend to be jerks, syphilis is totally worth getting if the sex is good enough, religion is for the cruel and the superstitious, and Candide's most sympathetic character is a comically bitter street sweeper named Martin. The material is thoroughly NSFW and not kind to the rich and powerful.
But they may have been responding to shortcomings in the adaptation: Despite all the bona fide geniuses who contributed to making the musical—Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, et al.—Candide loses some vital energy in translation from novella to operetta.
Part of the problem is authorial. Much of the action in Voltaire's novel comes from improbable reunions where the characters talk about their adventures. (Briefly: Some folks—including a naive kid named Candide, his relentlessly optimistic professor named Pangloss, his love-interest Cunegonde, a servant, and an old woman—travel the world and are attacked, mutilated, mugged, kidnapped, raped, and enslaved by soldiers, sailors, priests, merchants, Mother Nature, and nearly everybody else.) This works seamlessly on the page: The action is in your head, and it makes no difference whether the narrator or a character is telling the story. Not so much onstage, where you'd rather see stuff happening instead of being told about stuff that happened. The other part of the problem is structural. Candide is a mix of novel, philosophical treatise, and satire, a bit of metafiction that—like Tristram Shandy—pokes fun at its own form. But the musical is just a musical, not a musical that makes fun of musicals. It comes across as too sincere, like Candide himself.
Many individual elements of Candide, directed by 5th Avenue artistic director David Armstrong, are great. David Pichette is an excellent Pangloss/Voltaire, enthusiastic, droll, and bemused all at once. His voice is a little thin, but more than compensated for by longtime actress Anne Allgood, who has a surprisingly robust set of pipes. Sondheim and Parker are, of course, masters of the cutting couplet. From "Auto Da Fe," as a mob is about to kill a Jewish merchant: "He don't mix meat and dairy/He don't eat humble pie/So sing a Miserere/And hang the bastard high!" And from "You Were Dead, You Know," as Candide marvels at Cunegonde's survival and she tries to avoid telling him about all the survival sex she's been having:
Candide: Dearest, how can this be so? You were dead, you know. You were shot and bayoneted, too.
Cunegonde: That is very true. Oh, but love will find a way.
Candide: Then, what did you do?
Cunegonde: We'll go into that another day. Now let's talk of you.
And Bernstein's score, of course, is as jazzy, ebullient, and sophisticated as the man himself. So what's the problem? Why the subdued applause? Ambitious but flawed, Candide is less than the sum of its parts.