There's a theater in town that exudes such an atmosphere of inclusion, vitality, and good cheer that it's contagious, even on the first visit. (And, not incidentally, they put on a whale of a show.) The Near West Theatre has been in operation for 27 years, bringing talented professionals together with neighborhood folks, kids from shelters, and even homeless people off the streets -- all are welcome if they're willing to work, onstage or off, to put together a major production of a musical. And they don't come much more major than the current offering, Leonard Bernstein's Candide, a formidable mountain of satire set to music, which runs for three and a half hours with one intermission and calls for a cast of 40, hundreds of costumes, and some 25 set changes.
At first thought, the idea of a hybrid community theater dedicated to musicals and carrying a social-service mission might sound like a Salvation Army band with light cues. But under the executive direction of Stephanie Morrison-Hrbek and artistic guidance of Bob Navis Jr., Near West clearly takes its theatrical goals as seriously as its humanitarian ones. From start to finish, all the performers in Candide know who they are, what they're doing, and deliver even the smallest bits with concentration and precision. This is a tribute to the estimable talents of Navis, who is director, music director, and piano player for this complex tale of innocent young Candide's journey of discovery.
Based on Voltaire's 18th-century novel, the 30-some songs feature lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Lillian Hellman, and Dorothy Parker. With that kind of literary lineage, backed by Bernstein's compositions, you'd think Candide would be a slam-dunk hit. But its history has been studded with more failure than success since it tanked on Broadway in the early 1950s. That hardly seems to matter to a Near West troupe that lustily tackles every scene and sheds light on many of Voltaire's ideas, including the tyranny of wealth, religious hypocrisy, and the shallowness of philosophical theoreticians.
Amid a galaxy of secondary players who perform with great spirit, if varying degrees of talent, there are some substantial stars in this production. Andrew Narten as Voltaire provides a solid narrative thread, and he doubles as the laughably optimistic Pangloss, who believes, against all evidence, that "this is the best of all possible worlds." Kimberly Lauren Koljat sings beautifully (and at times comically) as Cunegonde, and Carlos Antonio Cruz -- who looks like a younger and more handsome Carl Lewis -- lights up the stage with his earnestness. But the show is stolen by Trinidad Snider every time she enters as The Old Woman with one buttock (a deformity she explains, hilariously). Snider's timing is so well-honed, she could be a touring headliner in shows at Playhouse Square.
Put all that together with the spare yet witty set designs of Michael Larochelle and some glorious costumes by Sandra Harding and Jodi Maile (especially the towering Marge Simpson-like blue-hair wigs of the courtesans), and you've got a lot of entertainment for the ridiculously modest admission of $6. That's less than parking costs at some theaters.