Los Angeles Theater Review: CANDIDE (Beverly O’Neill/Center Theater in Long Beach Opera)

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by Tony Frankel on January 28, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles


There isn’t much I could say about the musical Candide that hasn’t been written about before. Leonard Bernstein created one of our greatest Broadway scores when he – along with Lillian Hellman (book), Richard Wilbur (lyrics) and John Latouche (additional lyrics) – adapted Voltaire’s 1758 novel satirizing the mores of the Enlightenment (which was published three years before the Vatican placed the novella on its index of forbidden books).

Todd Strange, Jamie Chamberlin

But this really can’t be compared to other Broadway scores. Bernstein’s profoundly sophisticated and witty score is in a class by itself. The music actually has an 18th-century effect but feels wholly modern. Just as Voltaire burlesques society in a literate manner, so, too, does Bernstein with music, the most well-known being “Glitter and Be Gay,” a coloratura aria introduced by Barbara Cook when the show opened in 1956. There are also trios, quarters, waltzes, sublime ballads, a devilish tango, hornpipes, and many other riveting, jaw-dropping, cream-covered offerings. Even the Overture has become a staple with symphonies and philharmonics around the world. (The difference between the two great men is that Voltaire dished a constant stream of cynicism; Bernstein touches your heart with bittersweet and vulnerable work, especially in the finale, “Make Our Garden Grow,” and “Candide’s solos “It Must Be So” and “Lament.”)

The cast of Candide

So why isn’t Candide revived with regularity? First, the vocals are quite demanding – especially when the more than two hours of music is performed eight times a week. The other and more damnable problem is the libretto. Last Saturday, the glorious singers of Long Beach Opera – aided by Kristof Van Grysperre and his 14-piece orchestra – proved why the vocals are always worth hearing (regardless of the which version of Candide you are seeing). But even with an updated book, director David Schweizer’s unwieldy execution of a clever concept only made the tale drag.

The cast of Candide.

The operetta has been continually rewritten since the ’56 opening. Hellman’s version, called “academic, blunt, and barefaced” by Walter Kerr, was tossed in 1973 and replaced with one by Hugh Wheeler for Hal Prince’s version that lost half of the music, which in turn was rewritten by John Caird in 1999 for the Royal National Theatre. It is Caird’s version that LBO takes on. While Caird’s adaptation sticks closest to Voltaire’s book, many musical gems have been cut.

Robin Buck, Zeffin Quinn Hollis, Todd Strange, Suzan Hanson

The story follows Candide as he travels the world seeking his beloved Cunegonde. After proposing marriage to his love, Candide is kicked out of a Baron’s home – an Edenic paradise – and he and other characters go through ridiculously unendurable trials such as torture, jail, lost love, hanging, and the boredom of sameness and riches. Disillusionment occurs after he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world; Candide comes to realize that simplicity (“Make Our Garden Grow”) takes precedence over the advice of his tutor Dr.Pangloss, who said: “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”

Robin Buck, Danielle Marcelle Bond

As Candide, Todd Strange mixes youthful optimism and a lovely tenor voice. Enjoyably perky as Candide’s long-lost and much-compromised love Cunegonde, coloratura soprano Jamie Chamberlin absolutely nails the insanely difficult vocal heights of the hysterical aria “Glitter and Be Gay.” Their fantastic reunion song, “You Were Dead, You Know” was made all the more awesome because there wasn’t the cluttered staging and unmotivated pacing seen much of the evening by so many of the actors.

Robin Buck, Arnold Geis, Suzan Hanson

Robin Buck makes a wryly deadpan narrator as Voltaire, and is understatedly befuddled as Pangloss, the inanely unshakable advocate of optimism. Suzan Hanson is a whacky Old Woman, whose ludicrously tragic back story has left her with only one buttock, livening up her comic tango, “I Am Easily Assimilated.”

Jamie Chamberlin

Candide’s various fellow hard-luck travelers include Maximilian, Cunegonde’s snooty fop of a brother (Arnold Livingston Geis), the coquettish chambermaid Paquette (Danielle Marcelle Bond), a faithful manservant Cacambo (Roberto Perlas Gomez, occasionally indiscernible) and the cynical pessimist Martin (Zeffin Quinn Hollis, strong in both voice and character).

Jamie Chamberlin, Zeffin Quinn Hollis

Schweizer goes for playful here. It’s a meta conceit, beginning as some sort of rehearsal with Buck as the director. The haphazard setting has prop boxes, a giant muslin sheet, an overhead projector, music stands – you get the picture. Once Buck puts on some funky red-rimmed glasses (rose-colored optimism?) and becomes Pangloss, the action appears more straightforward in a Story Theater fashion. Designer Sean T. Cawelti has five puppeteers from his Rogue Artists Ensemble help out, but the results simply aren’t as imaginative as the concept. Plus, the puppeteers are mute; I suppose operatic puppeteers are in demand, but it sure would have helped some of the choral numbers. Nonetheless, the eight-member cast sounded wonderful (when they could be understood — sound issues were all around).

Arnold Geis, Suzan Hanson, Roberto Perlas Gomez

So while I loved hearing these great singers, I found myself distracted and somewhat disengaged. The big problem is that it feels like we’re watching high schoolers who think that slamming metal folding chairs and donning silly costumes makes for enchanting theater. Occasionally, the staging meets song perfectly, and we have the rousing “What’s the Use?” But to have the upstage orchestra be entirely blocked and audibly drowned out by actors setting the stage during the overture only made the opening noisy, disharmonious, and annoying. Either LBO needed more rehearsal or it should have just settled on a staged concert version. That way, we could have concentrated more on Bernstein’s genius and not the libretto’s problems.

(Back) Danielle Marcelle Bond, Robin Buck, Roberto Perlas Gomez, (Front) Todd Strange, Jamie Chamberlin

photos by Keith Ian Polakoff

Long Beach Opera
Beverly O’Neill/Center Theater
300 Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach
ends on January 30, 2016
for tickets, call 562-432-5934 or visit LBO

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cris Franco January 29, 2016 at 1:08 am

Tony: Even professional companies struggle casting Bernstein’s CANDIDE. For this globe-trotting comic operetta requires consummate singer/ actor/comedians in all the roles. Just about impossible to accomplish. Plus even the savviest of directors prays for inspiration and guidance when it comes to finding the right mix of heart vs. funny in CANDIDE. Thanks for the thorough review of LBO’s revival.


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