Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Lamplighters Music Theatre Presents the West Coast Premiere of the Ultimate Candide

Also see Richard's reviews of The Voysey Inheritance,
Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom and String Fever

For one night only, The Lamplighters presented a concert version of Leonard Bernstein's Candide at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre with the rarely heard Bernstein/Wilbur songs that are not in the cut down American version. This new three-hour version by John Caird was obtained from the Royal National Theatre for the West Coast premiere

I was fortunate enough to see the superb Royal National Production in London at the Olivier on November 3, 1999, with Simon Russell Beale doubling as the narrator, Voltaire, and philosopher, Pangloss. It was the last time I saw the wonderful Dennis Quilley, who played the pessimistic Martin (Dennis passed away several years ago). Alex Kelly played Cunegonde, and the boyish Daniel Evans (who played Peter in Peter Pan the year prior at the National) was the perfect Candide. I have always thought that was the epitome Candide since there were significant changes that incorporated more of Voltaire's words into the libretto. This version gives you more on detail the opposing philosophies of pessimism and optimism. It's a philosopher's Candide and the additional score has songs that are more in touch with the Voltaire's viewpoints

John Caird version is darker than the American version one sees when the Bernstein work is performed, and is easily the most coherent of all of the productions I have seen, including the original with Barbara Cook. Caird's adaptation most successfully uses the songs not as embellishments but as a means of driving the philosophical disputes forward. It contains the extended "Jesuit war against Spain" in Paraguay (which actually did happen) and extended scenes in Surinam and Venice. Even the first act Holland scene has been extended.

The Lamplighters production, with full orchestra and huge cast and chorus, is superb. The whole production is admirably professional and moves with an almost cinematic fluidity. The new orchestrations are very elegant, the difficult music is homogeneously well sung, and the choral work is predominantly memorable. The orchestra under the direction of Baker Peeples is splendid. The actors/singers are in lovely costumes designed by Melissa Worthman.

Baker Peeples not only directs the large orchestra but plays Voltaire, who narrates the trials and tribulations of Candide and company. Rick Williams is excellent as Pangloss and he plays it campy like Jim Dale in the Broadway revival at the Gershwin. He injects his own gallows humor in several scenes and is particularly good in the rendition of "Dear Boy" in the Holland scene. The transition of Candide from Holland to Paris to Lisbon makes more sense in this revised edition. The little heard "Paris Waltz" in the first act is a real charmer with the cast whirling about the stage.

Jennifer Ashworth as Cunegonde is an absolute delight as she changes from a lovely "innocent girl" to almost an old, worn out woman in the last scenes. It's a first rate transformation. She does not sing "Glitter and Be Gay," the famous jewel song, as a parody of a Mozartian coloratura aria but as a display of naked greed. The last stanza, as she throws the jewels helter skelter, is a comic delight.

Andrew Truett plays a more serious Candide. He has a smooth voice, but it does not have the theatricality of the prior actors who have sung this role. He sings it more operatic than theatric and seems a little stiff in the role. Stacey Helley as the Old Woman is entertaining in "I Am Easily Assimilated"; it is one of the highlights of the production. Her solo speaking part of how she lost one of her buttocks is a real scream; she does it perfectly, with the flow of words from her mouth in a slightly Polish accent with "a high diddle diddle."

Candide's second act has major revisions that introduce the charming Cacambo who becomes a friend and servant of Candide, and Martin who refuses to believe in the goodness of mankind. The Montevideo scene at the beginning of the act has a wonderful melodic song called "We are Women" sung by Jennifer Ashworth and Stacey Helley. The Paraguay scene has been extended to include the powerful "Alleluia" by the chorus while this version adds the King and Queen of Eldorado, played by Jim MacIlvanine and Rebecca Brown, who sing the "Ballad of Eldorado," joined by David Neufield, Andrew Truett and chorus.

David Neufeld has a striking voice and great stage presence as Cacambo, the friend and confidant of Candide. He has a grand voice, especially in the "The Ballad of Eldorado" and "What's the Use," which has an entirely different set of lyrics from the American version. Instead of a satire on gambling, it becomes a debate about the vanity of human wishes. Brian M. Rosen plays various parts, including Martin, and comes into his own on "Words, Words, Words," a pessimistic ode to the optimism of Pangloss. "This is the worst of all possible worlds," he sings.

This version never gets to Constantinople, but the group end up in Venice where we hear the added "Money, Money, Money" by the women of Venice, the charming "The Venice Gavotte," and Candide's soulful ballad "Nothing More Than This." There is also a beautiful "dream" scene involving six dethroned kings singing "The Kings Barcarolle" drifting on the canals of Venice. Voltaire's philosophy comes to the forefront in the second to last song, "Universal Good," sung superbly by Andrew Truett and chorus, going into the magnificent, goosebump-inducing "Make Our Garden Grow."

There are some excellent supporting singers/actors in "this best of all possible productions." John Brown primps and primes around the stage as the snobbish Maximilian who has been killed "several times" and ends up the head abbot of the Jesuit order. He is very good in the role, with his sneering facial expressions. Leontyne Mbele-Mlbong is coquettish as Paquette, and Don Issacar is top drawer in his roles with his powerful voice. Baker Peeples leads the orchestra well and is cool as Voltaire. Director Philip Lowery has done a super job of helming this concert version.

The Lamplighters Company has announced that they will do a concert version of Jerome Kern's Show Boat next year. The company will present Gilbert and Sullivan's fun operetta The Mikado at both the Dean Lesher Center in Walnut Creek on August 5 - 7 and the Yerba Buena Center, San Francisco, August 20-29 or September 2- 5.

Photo: David Allen

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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