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12 Aug 2015

Energetic Glimmerglass Candide

Bernstein’s Candide seems to have more performance versions than Tales of Hoffmann.

Having famously flopped in its 1956 Broadway debut, partly owing to its sprawling Voltairean ambitions and dark Lillian Hellman book, its score was nevertheless widely admired. It wasn’t until 1973 that Harold Prince had the vision to scale back the focus, infuse the tale with sassiness and punch, and set the revamped version in a circus-like environment with the action exploding in, around, and through the audience.

Capturing on the (then) quadrophonic sound craze, the orchestra was split into four components. Broadway had never seen anything quite like it. The taut, intermissionless version convinced audiences that Candide was now viable, accessible, and it became one of the solid hits of the season. I saw it and loved it three times.

And then the tinkering and re-imagining began, at opera houses and theatres worldwide, until the show has regained somewhat a meandering grab-bag approach that strains the concentration. I had never seen an expanded Candide such as this Royal National Theatre Version used by Glimmerglass.

Director Francesca Zambello has wisely chosen to stage it as a Broadway show, and she has invested the proceedings with all her trademark invention and pacing. Ms. Zambello has an excellent team of Young Artists at her disposal and she shows off the depth of the roster with skill and affection.

Francesa filled the stage with enough good ideas for about 10 shows, and all of them were welcome. She set the tone brilliantly during the second half of the overture, with a clown car effect in which a theatrical trunk was placed center stage and performers kept climbing out of it, as dust covers were removed from other set pieces revealing half clad actors who scamper up stairs, and clamber onto ladders to make a final pose at the close of the famous overture. What a witty, Cirque de So Gay start to the night!

Thereafter, the director and design team did their damnedest to keep the stage filled with motion, effects, dances, and most of all, a semblance of clarity. All in all, they served this version well. James Noone’s massive, versatile set design was a theatrical backstage structure that kept morphing into one locale after another. In this accomplishment, Mr. Noone was ably abetted by Mark McCullough, whose fluid lighting design was characterized by effective split second timing. Mood and location changes were well reflected in the color filters and gobos.

Jennifer Moeller’s eye-popping costumes ran the gamut from military uniforms to showgirls to be-jeweled red sheep to courtesans to soldiers to clerics to . . . hmm. . .the kitchen sink must have been in there somewhere. Ms. Moeller clearly relished her assignment and, to our delight, she had a field day.

Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel brought real Broadway flair to production numbers that were ebullient and well-shaped. He made much more of I Am Easily Assimilated and Eldorado than I imagined possible. The latter with its Las Vegas sensibilities would not be out of place in Sin City’s Jubilee.

In Amadeus, Emperor Joseph II critiques Mozart’s music as “too many notes.” On this occasion, I felt Candide had “too many words.” You couldn’t always tell the players without a program, and so Dr. Pangloss (oh, excuse me: Voltaire) keeps nattering on and on just to try to keep us up to snuff on who the hell is who, where the hell they are, and why the hell we care.

This is to take nothing away from the excellent David Garrison in those dual roles. He is a Broadway pro and it shows. He commands our interest, sings in a pleasing baritone, and enters into the fun with abandon. Mr. Garrison held the show together, keeping the narrative going through paragraphs and paragraphs (did mention paragraphs?) of explanations. When he speeds and slurs through one final ludicrous scenario of a speech near show’s end, the audience erupts into applause for his having dispatched yet another long windy moment with witty bravado.

Andrew Stenson has diminutive, wide-eyed, boyish good looks that made for a generally appealing Candide. He has a nice technique, but the tone could have benefitted from a bit more brilliance. Mr. Stenson entertained us without moving us. He came closest to connecting specifically with the material in Nothing More Than This, before he isolates himself from the others. But when he relents and returns for the denouement, he reverts to his earlier generalized presentation.

Kathryn Lewek sang marvelously as Cunegonde with a pointed, silvery soprano that was highly accurate and pliable. She and her director have definite ideas about the role that changed the balance of the show for me. Here, the heroine has been stripped of her sweetness and naivete. Her impeccably voiced Glitter and Be Gay was played as a Mad Scene. Instead of gleefully and girlishly piling on the jewels, this Cunegonde hysterically hurls them away. I respect the choice and the consistency, but it did make for a cool relationship with Candide.

Christian Bowers’ sturdy Maximilian was well served by a pleasant baritone that could benefit from a bit more forward placement. His slightly covered top was challenged by the strings of octaves in Life is Happiness Indeed. As Paquette, Kristen Choi had a spunky sex appeal, and she showed off a well-schooled, appealingly smoky mezzo.

Veteran Marietta Simpson didn’t miss a trick as the Old Lady with her spot-on comic timing and hilarious Mittel-European accent of undetermined origin. Ms. Simpson has an noticeable register break in her mezzo, but she certainly knew how to use her voice and maximized her resources as she scored all the character’s points.

Brad Raymond brought very solid singing and infectious spontaneity to his doubling as the Governor and Grand Inquisitor. The gender bending in the casting assignments was all in good fun, and Cynthia Cook’s turn as the villainous ship captain Vanderdendur was a delightful quirk. Although I found the version’s inclusion of two characters extraneous and muddying, there is no denying that Andrew Maughan brought a fine voice and good presence to Cacambo, and Matthew Scollin excelled as the pessimistic Martin with spot-on vocalizing.

Thanks to Francesca Zambello, this was a hard-working, finely tuned ensemble, absolutely focused and tightly knit. The entire group is often called upon to turn on a dime and become wholly different characters. And they do. Favorite moment: the ensemble is littered as corpses on a battlefield, and when the narration says that Candide soon arrives at another battlefield, the group of corpses flops over as one to “change locale.” (Talk about turning on a dime. . .)

Under Joseph Colaneri’s baton, the orchestra played securely, but perhaps a bit more cheekiness could have been summoned. The overture was correct and clean but lacked that final bit of insouciance. Bon Voyage could have had a headier lilt. The underscoring that contributed so much to the pace and continuity of the 70’s revival has sadly been all but removed. All the beloved set pieces are in their place to be sure, but it has to be said that some rather indifferent Bernstein has also snuck into the score.

Still, if you are going to embrace this edition, then this was likely the best of all possible Candide’s.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Cunegonde: Kathryn Lewek; Old Lady: Marietta Simpson; Candide: Andrew Stenson; Baroness/Vanderdendur: Cynthia Cook; Maximilian: Christian Bowers; Martin/James: Matthew Scollin; Pangloss/Voltaire: David Garrison; Paquette: Kristen Choi; Cacambo: Andrew Maughan; Grand Inquisitor/Governor: Brad Raymond; Baron: Marco Cammarota; Inquisitors: Brian Vu, Anthony Schneider; Conductor: Joseph Colaneri; Director: Francesca Zambello; Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel; Set Design: James Noone; Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller; Lighting Design: Mark McCullough: Hair and Make-up Design: Anne Ford-Coates

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