Reviewed by Myron Meisel
Long Beach Opera at Center Theater
Through January 30
True to its theme, there will never be “the best of all possible” Candides. Leonard Bernstein’s almost perfectly imperfect musical theater piece straddles the realms of Broadway and the opera, not unlike Porgy and Bess (if “The Gershwins’ (sic)” tarted version hasn’t scotched its operatic identity for the foreseeable future). A signal failure in its original 1956 run, Candide returned in 1973 as a smash hit under Harold Prince’s tutelage and remained popular ever since.
As the product of sixty years of continual revision, two book adapters (Lillian Hellman, then supplanted entirely by Hugh Wheeler), at least five credited lyricists in addition to Richard Wilbur’s original work, not to mention Bernstein’s repeated tinkering with his own score, no one undertakes a production without having their own whack at it. Long Beach Opera’s present incarnation proceeds from the Royal National Theatre version of 1999 by John Caird, and director David Schweizer unsurprisingly makes further cuts to complement a lean staging that for all its energetic swiftness, and Bernstein’s irresistible musical pulse, still cannot quite overcome the work’s discursive resistance to momentum.
Voltaire’s 1757 satire married Swiftian fanciful disgust to a Hobbesian world-view, while applying that peculiarly affectless French irony founded on the primacy of logic, whether rational or not (in short: the Enlightenment), taking account of the horrors of human society in a jaundiced, jaunty mode. Hellman, who conceived the project in substantial measure as a jibe at Red Scare persecutions, fired the imagination of Bernstein, who envisioned the operetta potential in the material. Plundering encyclopedically from European dance rhythms and meters, Bernstein’s fecund score still always manages to sound exactly like himself, and the songs, while hardly detachable from the scenario as pop tunes, in context boast an immortal freshness.
Of course, while Bernstein was sympathetically attuned to the political ramifications of the themes, in the end Candide plays just as aptly as a critique of the persistent sunniness of the American musical (whether Broadway or Hollywood) ostensibly demanded by audiences. Even the innate pessimism of Candide‘s misanthropy, however, cannot escape the inevitably optimistic resolution required by Bernstein’s own fervor for the redemptive tonic of his art.
LBO’s Candide, taken as a whole, is an effective, engaging rendition, strongly voiced by singers who can act and comprise a cohesive ensemble. Schweizer starts somewhat shakily, with the device of a first rehearsal by the troupe in which the Voltaire/Dr. Pangloss figure (Robin Buck) begins as a surrogate director who chooses in the moment which player to cast in which role, with everyone appearing furiously on book as if sussing out the parts for the first time. The gimmick is both slightly clever and slightly lame, but as it gives way to a confident polish, the show become increasingly cogent, vocally always doing honorable service to the text.
This is a stripped-down, budget-savvy mounting, given what visual panache it has largely through the ministrations of Sean Cawelti and his Rogue Artists team, contriving masks, props and puppet effects that while essentially simple emerge highly expressive. Schweizer emphasizes coherence and speed, requiring the players to be consistently over-busy, paces which they execute with high spirits and a consistent tone.
The compact orchestra of 14 musicians, placed behind the action and sometimes muffled by a white curtain on which shadow images play, tends towards a thinness of sound (especially compared to the rich concert version of the “Overture”) that does not overwhelm the dimensions of the sparse production, though one could have wished for a stronger punch of the score’s inherent sparkle. On the other hand, the reduced forces, while comprised of modern instruments, do reflect the more modest ensembles redolent of the story’s period.
Still, the marvelous ensemble glitters gaily in every number, and Schweizer masterfully affords them ideal context in which to convey the gorgeous melodies and the cherry-picked acerbic lyrics. Todd Strange makes for a credible Candide, a challenging task that must be approached without a hint of coyness or commentary. Jamie Chamberlin’s Cunegonde, inescapably laboring in the shade of Barbara Cook’s original cast recording, distinctively attacks the role with a mock sensuality that suggests the buoyantly compromised nature of her much-abused survivor. In a variety of multiple and indelible roles, company veterans such as Suzan Hanson, Roberto Prelas Gomez and Danielle Marcelle Bond provide lustily inventive support, while newcomer Zeffin Quinn Hollis, with his loony eyes and original timing, scores in several hilarious cameos.
Candide, Long Beach Opera at Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; , Sat., January 30 at 2:30 p.m. & 8 p.m. (562) 432-5934, longbeachopera.org. Running time: Two hours, twenty minutes (including intermission).