How Can We Be Optimistic? | “Candide” @ LA Opera

Candide (LA Opera)We’re in a society that is filled with school shootings and violence. We have leaders that disrespect their offices, and that never demonstrate leadership or high morals. We’re constantly at the throats of others due to partisan policies. The oceans are rising, weather is getting more extreme, and we’re mortgaging our future to pay for today. Can it be said that we live in the best of all possible worlds? Is there reason to maintain an optimistic outlook, or must we just concede the world has gone to hell in a handbasket, and we must just give up and accept our fate?

That’s the question at the heart of Candide, a philosophical treatise written by the philospher Voltaire in 1789. Per Wikipedia: It begins with a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life in an Edenic paradise and being indoctrinated with Leibnizian optimism (or simply “optimism”) by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes the abrupt cessation of this lifestyle, followed by Candide’s slow, painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world. Voltaire concludes with Candide, if not rejecting optimism outright, advocating a deeply practical precept, “we must cultivate our garden”, in lieu of the Leibnizian mantra of Pangloss, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds“.

Candide has long been popular to adapt for the stage, and in 1956, it was musicalized by Leonard Bernstein. This original verson, with a book by Lillian Hellman, and lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Bernstein, Hellman, John La Touche, and Dorothy Parker, was a flop on Broadway, closing after 73 performances. But in 1973, it was revisited. Hellman refused to allow her work to be used, and a new book was developed by Hugh Wheeler, with some additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  This version was more successful, running nearly two years and producing a well-received cast album (which I have). This was reworked again by John Caird for the Royal National Theatre. You can see the gory details of all the different versions here. This being part of the “Bernstein at 100” celebration, LA Opera (FB) opted to present this rework of a rework version to join in on the fun.

When I learned that LA Opera (FB) was presenting the show. One of my various quests is to actually see the shows that I’ve only heard. I’d long listened (and enjoyed) the music of Candide, and this provided the opportunity to put that music in context. Unfortunately, LA Opera tickets are expensive, and they weren’t yet on Goldstar. I found a Metro discount, and got some seats for a Thursday night in Balcony B. We grabbed our binoculars, and off we went. [I must remember, however, not to do these things on a school night — I was dragging the next day.]

For those unfamiliar with the story of Candide, it is basically the story of an illegitimate son (Candide) of a Westphalian (German) prince, said Prince’s real son (Maximilian), said Prince’s real daughter (Cunegonde), and their private tutor, Dr. Pangloss. Pangloss’s philosophy is that this it the best of all possible worlds, otherwise known as optimism, which focuses only on the good of the moment. When that world goes south after Candide and Cunegonde fall in love, there is a series of adventures as Candide goes around the globe: conscripted into the Bavarian army, saved by an Anabaptist, escaping to Lisbon and then to Spain … and the inquisition (which is something he didn’t expect, because no one expects…). Escaping the inquisition and ending up in the new world in Montevideo, only to have to escape again to El Dorado, and then escaping again to Venice. All the while, Candide keeps running into Cunegonde and Pangloss, and he keeps debating Pangloss’ philosophy.  Eventually, Candide abandons the philosophy, moving instead to one where work is its own reward — in the simple life of a farm, growing things, using one’s skills.  You can find the synopsis of the full original story here; a closer synopsis of the final operetta here.

Having now seen the show, just a few observations. First, the show was surprisingly engaging. Despite the more operatic style, and despite the length and how much story was crammed into the book, time just seemed to fly. There was no time that I felt the urge to look at the program to see when the act might end. There were no points where I felt the story was unnecessary. In fact, there were a few places where the story could have been lengthened to provide more information on what was happening to the characters.

Secondly, I was surprised at how witty the lyrics were. Unlike traditional musical theatre, opera often has “supertitles” — projected lyrics above the stage for the audience to read. This is vital when operas are in a foreign language, but it is also useful for operas in English. For Candide, both the Sondheim and Bernstein influences were clear by the internal and clever rhymes, and the messages and words conveyed. I was familiar with Bernstein’s music, but seeing it in use conveyed better the different styles of the music and how they related to the story.

Under the direction of Francesca Zambello (FB), the show was conceived as Voltaire narrating his story, and periodically dropping into character as Dr. Pangloss. The rest of the action was seemingly put on by an acting troupe or in Voltaire’s imagination (as they came out of a trunk), although that wasn’t made very clear. The story moves from location to location very fast, and the physical set to create those locations was more imagination than realism (i.e., scaffolds, planks, benches, trunks). Location cues were provided more by costumes, flags, and props. But it all ended up working.

In the name actor positions — I hesitate to say leads because it was not around them who the story focused — were Kelsey Grammer as Voltaire/Pangloss and Christine Ebersole (FB) as The Old Lady. Grammer had a large amount of stage time as the narrator, and provided the main philosophical push as Pangloss. It was no surprise that he handled the acting and the comedy well, although at times he seemed to be playing it up a bit much. I was less enamored of his singing — he has an odd style that didn’t work for me on the recording of La Cage, and didn’t work for me here. Luckily, Pangloss doesn’t have a large number of songs where he is the primary voice. I enjoyed Ebersole much more, and actually wished her role was larger. Good comedy, good presentation, and excellent singing — in particular, she handled “I Am Easily Assimilated” quite well.

In what I truly think are the lead positions were folks more familiar to the opera side of the equation: Jack Swanson (FB) as Candide and Erin Morley (FB) as Cunegonde. Both of these performers were excellent, with the right amount of playfulness and earnestness. Morley did a great job with her signature number in the show, “Glitter and Be Gay”, both in the vocal performance as well as the acting that goes along with it. Swanson’s Candide had a lovely voice and was enjoyable to watch.

The other more-major named positions were performed well and were fun to watch, although discerning the nuances of the performances were difficult from Balcony B. This group included Theo Hoffman (FB[Maximilian]; Peabody Southwell [Paquette]; Matthew Scollin [James the Anabaptist / Martin]; Brian Michael Moore (FB[Grand Inquisitor / Governor of Montevideo]; Joshua Wheeker (FB[Cacambo]; and Taylor Raven [Venderdendur, Baroness, Lisbonite]. The ones that stick out in my mind were Southwell’s Paquette and Wheeker’s Cacambo.

Lastly, there where the members of the ensemble, who also had some minor named positions as noted: Eboni Adams (FB) [Dance Captain], Andrea Beasom, Tom Berklund (FB[Lisbonite], Tucker Reed Breder, Abdiel Gonzalez (FB[Bavarian Captain, 2nd Inquisition Agent, Señor, Surinam Slave], Katherine Henly (FB[Bavarian Corporal, Sheep], Amber Liekhus (FB[Lisbonite, Queen of Eldorado], Danny Lindgren (FB), Amanda Compton LoPresti (FB), Robert Norman (FB[Holland Minister, Don Issachar, Señor, King of Eldorado], Steve Pence (FB[Baron, 1st Inquisition Agent, Galley Captain], and Michelle Siemens (FB[Minister’s Wife]. Of this group, the ones that stick in my head were the performances of the sheep (including Katherine Henly), and Amber Liekhus’s Queen of Eldorado.

Rounding out the LA Opera Chorus (who I believe were offstage) were: Nicole Fernandes, Ayana Haviv, Rebecca Tomlinson, Omar Crook, Francis Lucaric, Todd Strange, Aleta Braxton, Sara Campbell, Jennifer Wallace, Mark Beasom, and James Martin Schaefer. Abdiel Gonzalez (FB), who filled in for Tim Campbell, is normally part of the chorus as well.

The LA Opera Orchestra was excellent, but was way too large for me to list them all here. 49 pieces. You don’t see that in normal music theatre, where you’re lucky sometimes to have a working piano. You can find a summary of LA Opera’s Orchesta’s artists here.

Lastly, turning to the creative and production team. The aforementioned orchestra was conducted by James Conlon (FB), who also gave a talk before the show. Movement and dance was under the choreographic eye of Eric Sean Fogel. Candide has a wide variety of dance styles, and all were handled quite well. The simple scenic design described above was developed by James Noone (FB); Jennifer Moeller did the costumes.  I mentioned my appreciation of the scenic design and supporting props earlier; Moeller’s costumes also provided great support to defining the time and especially place. The basic ensemble costumes were perhaps what I would call worn sexy chic, and survived under whatever outer garmets (red wool, Montevidean coats, uniform coats, etc.) were put on top of them. More elaborate costumes were provided to the major named characters, and Candide and Pangloss remained in essentially the same costumes throughout. You can see Moeller’s costumes and Noone’s scenic design in the show’s photo gallery.  Kai Harada (FB)’s sound design was reasonable clear even up in Balcony B, although perhaps a little more volume would have been good. Mark McCullough‘s lighting design worked well to establish time and mood (especially the use of red in places). The aforementioned chorus had good sound in the few choral numbers, under the direction of Grant Gershon. Rounding out the creative and production team were: E. Loren Meeker (FB[Assoc. Director]; Chelsea Antrim [Stage Manager]; Christopher Allen [Assoc. Conductor]; Trevore Ross (FB[Asst. Director]; Aurelia Andrews (FB), Jeremy Frank ⟦Assoc. Chorus Master⟧, Bryndon Hassman (FB), and Miah Im (FB[Musical Preparation]; Barbara Donner (FB), Whitney McAnally (FB), and Melissa Tosto [Asst. State Managers].

The final performance of Candide was Sunday, February 18, 2017.

***

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Upcoming as of when I saw this (but which we saw yesterday) was the first production of the Chromolume Theatre (FB) 2018 season, Dessa Rose. The month concludes with  James and the Giant Peach at the Chance Theatre (FB) in the Anaheim Hills, and tickets for Dublin Irish Dance Stepping Out at  the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).

March was supposed to start with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner, but that shifted back a week. This enables us to see a remounting of Leslie Jones starring in Prez – The Lester Young Story that weekend. This is followed on the second weekend with the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB) and the MRJ Man of the Year Dinner. The next weekend brings Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend is currently open. The last weekend of March is open for theatre, but there will be the Men of TAS Seder.

April looks to be a busy month. It starts with Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)), as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB). Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding an  Ahmanson Theatre (FB) subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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