LONG BEACH, Calif. – In 1974 I saw, and fell in love with, Candide on Broadway. With music composed by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by – among others – Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim, and book by Hugh Wheeler based on Voltaire’s drolly philosophical 1759 novel, the production had a big impact on me. From the opening strains of Lenny’s “Overture” I was enthralled by the frothy, bouncy, ebullient music that never fails to enchant and lift spirits. Voltaire’s sagaspoke to me – the story of a naïf who leaves his birthplace, Westphalia (in what is now Germany), and travels to the tropics in order to find his own way in the world and true love. Two years later, when I left New York for Tahiti, I felt like a modern-day Candide, a latter-day innocent searching abroad for the best of all possible paradises.
Since its 1956 premiere on the Great White Way, Candide has become a perennial. The current Long Beach Opera revival at the Beverly O’Neill Theater (formerly Center Theater) is based on the Royal National Theatre version, the book in a new iteration by British writer/director John Caird, with a heaping dose of input by director David Schweizer. This LBO production is at all times innovative, witty and charming, full of puppetry, pageantry, imaginative stagecraft and Voltaire’s waggish sensibility. In lieu of CGI and expensive Hollywood studio big-budget special effects, the staging humorously includes wayang kulit – Indonesian shadow puppets by scenic/puppet/mask designer Sean Cawelti.
The play just sort of cleverly stirs to life – so don’t arrive late. Veteran performer Robin Buck, whose singing and acting credits range from Manhattan to Switzerland to L.A. Philharmonic and who starred in the title role of LBO’s great 2014 production of John Adams’ operaThe Death of Klinghoffer, here plays both the 18th-century philosophe Voltaire and Doctor Pangloss. The high-voltage Voltaire’s plume was dipped in acid, and along with the church and monarchy, Pangloss is mercilessly mocked by the French Enlightenment thinker for his blind optimism, relentlessly preaching to his students that this “is the best of all possible worlds.”
Among Pangloss’ students is Candide, played by Todd Strange. The fresh-faced tenor imbues Candide with the role’s innate naïveté, expressing what Voltaire described as Candide’s being “endowed by Nature with the most gentle character. His face was the expression of his soul. His judgment was quite honest and he was extremely simple-minded….” Strange’s visage and his performance convey all this but, alas, the lead actor’s image is somewhat undercut by graying hair. I’m not an age-ist, but when the story begins Voltaire calls Candide “a youth,” so gray locks unlock the fourth wall a bit.
Wearing a blonde wig, soprano Jamie Chamberlin (who previously portrayed Marilyn Monroe in LBO’s Marilyn Forever) plays the guileless Candide’s love interest, the cunning Cunegonde. Along with Strange she warbles the lovely duet “Oh, Happy We,” perhaps the two-acter’s sweetest number.
Mezzo soprano Danielle Marcelle Bond (who also depicted Monroe in LBO’s Marilyn Forever) displays comic panache as Paquette – perhaps the archetypal saucy French maid. So does Suzan Hanson in multiple parts, including as the Baroness and the Old Woman who is, literally, the butt of jokes because she only has one buttock. Although the reason why is alluded to but never quite explained onstage, one can imagine Voltaire devoting a half-assed novella to the saga as to how this came about. In any case, the fact that Hanson can play such frivolous characters, as well as Marilyn Klinghoffer, the wife of the terror victim in the aforementioned LBO production, is a testament to this soprano’s range and talent.
The same is true for Roberto Perlas Gomez, who likewise has multiple parts in Candide, including as Maximilian and manipulative Cacambo, but has portrayed serious characters in dramas, including the terrorist named “Rambo” in LBO’s Klinghoffer and Chou en-Lai in its Nixon in China.
In stark contrast to Pangloss’ optimism, baritone Zeffin Quinn Hollis, whose acting/singing career has taken him from Palm Beach to Hungary, has a scene-stealing number wherein he refutes the not-so-good Doctor’s Pollyanna-ish viewpoint. As the street sweeper Martin, Hollis provides a proletarian perspective on the drudgery of hard, physical labor in this work full of barbs hurled at the 18th-century’s class hierarchy, where the few had so much at the expense of the many. (See the extent of progress we’ve made since 1759!!!) Hollis’ pessimistic solo is one of the production’s showstoppers – and heart stoppers. Well done, stout fellow.
The story takes our hero Candide from Westphalia to Latin America’s mythical golden city of El Dorado. En route, Candide encounters the Inquisition in Portugal, and surely under Lillian Hellman’s pen, the church’s auto da fé stands in for the witch-hunting of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Torquemada-like Joe McCarthy in the Senate. As Bernstein comments in the playbill, Voltaire’s 18th-century work is “especially valid for us in America…[with its] inquisitorial attacks on the individual….” When Hellman was called before HUAC, rather than crawl, she was ready to brawl and heroically – famously – proclaimed: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions” (slightly misquoted in the program note supplied by Bernstein’s daughter Jamie Bernstein).
Speaking of which, Lori Meeker’s costumes in this sometimes modern-dress production are delights to the eye, along with a few commedia dell arte masks. Now a question as to genre – is Candide, as Bernstein pondered, “operetta or comic opera or whatever….” Or, for that matter, is it even a Broadway musical (a category the composer of West Side Story is also wellacquainted with)? In the first act there is spoken dialogue and it seemed to be used more than recitative – conversational talking often used to move the plot along of some operas, as in Verdi’s La Traviata. Well, no matter how it is categorized, the LBO orchestra conducted by Kristof Van Grysperre enhances the show with live music that’s always a pleasure to the ears (and eyes, when the 14 musicians onstage are not behind the shadow puppets’ screen).
Enjoying Candide now comes at a special time for me, as I prepare to return to paradise, embarking on a voyage aboard the Aranui 5 cargo cruiser to the Oceanic El Dorados of Tahiti, the Tuamotu atolls (while they’re still here!), the Marquesas Islands, Bora Bora. Be that as it may, audiences will have the opportunity to experience this lively, lovable version of Candide onlytwo more times. It is well worth the “voyage” to Long Beach. And after all, to paraphrase Mssr. Voltaire, “we must all cultivate our operas” – or whatever the heck you want to call it!
Candide is being performed on Sat., Jan. 30 at 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. at the Beverly O’Neill Theater (formerly Center Theater), Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, CA 90802. For more info: (562)432-5934; LBOpera.org.
Photo: Long Beach Opera