Easily assimilated: 'Candide' returns
by Philip Campbell
Lamplighters Music Theatre, the beloved Bay Area troupe best-known for traditional productions of Gilbert & Sullivan, is currently staging the Royal National Theatre version of Leonard Bernstein's fabulous operetta Candide. Altogether darker, more bitter and convoluted than even the looniest of W.S. Gilbert's librettos, the book for the Broadway and Opera House version of Voltaire's trenchant little satire has been tortuously morphing in pursuit of a definitive edition for close to 60 years now.
Lillian Hellman's words (yes, that Lillian Hellman) were originally thought too serious and heavy-handed for Bernstein's sparkling cascade of melody and poet Richard Wilbur's cunningly clever lyrics. A revival in the mid-1970s went for lower humor and naughtier sight-gags, with a new book by Hugh Wheeler and some re-tooling and reduced orchestration of the score, adding some new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (that's right, that Stephen Sondheim). Director Hal Prince's wildly cut and dumbed-down staging was admittedly entertaining and popular, proving far more successful than the original Broadway run, and the case seemed closed until eight years later.
Prince changed his vision of the show and opted for an expanded two-act script of Wheeler's originally intermission-less book, and restored most of the glorious music discarded for his pocket "Chelsea version." The attempt provided a more satisfying musical experience and theatrical spectacle for the now-defunct New York City Opera in 1982. It became the go-to edition until the Scots got it in their heads to make some sense of the whole beautiful mess in 1988, with a big, plumped-up, opera-house take on the library of material.
A little over a decade later, the Brits at the Royal National Theatre got their own say, with a book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler in a new version by John Caird with most of the lyrics by Richard Wilbur, adding Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman back into the mix.
Get it? Got it? Good! Because that's what the Lamplighters are working with in the latest display of what is arguably the best of all possible versions, now playing through Feb. 22 at Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, and ending up at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The show is still way too long, and some of the extended dialogue and exposition remains ponderous and excessive, but the unfussy narration of Baker Peeples, doubling as Voltaire and orchestra conductor, helps speed the pace, and the cast is pleasingly up to the task of navigating Bernstein's wonderful score.
Unexpectedly, the orchestra on the first Saturday night of the opening at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, was raggedy and uncertain from the very start of that famous Overture, but the instrumental performance improved markedly afterwards. Even if a lot of Stage Director Phil Lowery's overly detailed traffic control got annoyingly in the way, Bernstein's marvelous pastiche got the typically deluxe Lamplighters treatment.
The leading female roles are understandably double-cast for the production, and I was lucky to see San Francisco Conservatory of Music alum Amy Foote in her third major Lamplighters role as the vain and clueless Cunegonde. Foote's acting and pitch-perfect singing set the seal on an utterly adorable and comically amusing performance.
Another personal favorite from Lamplighters repertory, Deborah Rosengaus nailed it in another part (Old Woman) that is actually too old for her. Her rich singing voice and funny accent turned "I Am Easily Assimilated" into the night's biggest show-stopper, and I couldn't wait to see what she would come up with each time she appeared. The hilarious monologue describing the saga culminating in her loss of one buttock earned a spontaneous and deserved round of applause.
Samuel Faustine plays Candide, and we know his capabilities from the recent Pirates of Penzance. He has an innocence that is ideally suited for the role, and his singing voice is pure and ingratiating. He suffered at times from an excessively "golly, shucks" sort of body movement, but when he grew (as the character does) to a mature understanding and acceptance of the world's craziness, we felt convinced by his transformation.
Rick Williams as the optimist Doctor Pangloss took his assignment with the air of a seasoned veteran, and his subtlety was appreciated when so much hamming was being allowed elsewhere.
Supporting roles were well-cast and executed from the ranks of the company, with Ben Brady making a strong impression as the anti-Pangloss Martin, and Michele Schroeder triumphing over a ridiculously unnecessary speech about sex-workers' rights in the second act, and managing to keep the fun in her politically incorrect role as the pert and willing serving-wench Paquette. Phil Wong made his Lamplighters debut in an earnest, endearing and well-sung portrayal of Candide's affably malleable friend Cacambo.
The Ensemble/Comprimarii (that's what they are called in the program) may be too numerous to mention, but they constitute what makes the company so strong. Individually accomplished and thoroughly engaged, their contributions kept our attention, even during some stretches of what seemed to be endless explanation. The semi-staged "jewel box" approach helps to streamline the proceedings, and as always, the costumes by Melissa Wortman are sumptuously realized.
We may never really see the perfect production of Candide, but it is encouraging to know that the Lamplighters agree it is the Holy Grail of Broadway legends, still worthy of endless interpretation and audience interest.