.Cabaret Voltaire

Virago Theatre Company's performance is not the best of all possible Candides, but it'll do.

Voltaire’s 1759 novella Candide is a particularly biting philosophical satire of the optimism of Gottfried Leibniz, which posits that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire, the artist formerly known as Francois-Marie Arouet, has his titular hero Candide cling to this belief as he and his loved ones are repeatedly raped, slaughtered, tortured, defrauded, pimped, betrayed, and degraded in every possible manner throughout Europe and a good chunk of South America. The narrative is pretty much one damn thing after another as Candide, his true love Cunégonde, and teacher Pangloss endure all manner of travails on their travels.

The Leonard Bernstein operetta Candide‘s history has been similarly circuitous, ever since its first incarnation as a 1956 Broadway flop with a book by Lillian Hellman (whose text was scrapped entirely in all subsequent versions) and lyrics by Richard Wilbur with help from John LaTouche and Dorothy Parker.

There was director Harold Prince’s one-act 1973 revamp with a new book by Hugh Wheeler and lyrical touchups from Stephen Sondheim, which was expanded to a full-length version in 1982. There was the 1989 Scottish Opera version that Bernstein himself revamped to restore the score and story to its full girth and glory, then a wacky 1997 Broadway revival for which Sondheim beefed up the part of the Old Lady for star Andrea Martin. For the musical’s semicentennial anniversary in 2006, Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet unveiled a postmodern adaptation that takes place in a ’50s-style TV set.

For its bare-bones production on the dance-studio floor of Alameda’s Rhythmix Cultural Works, Virago Theatre Company decided to go with the 1998 Royal National Theatre version, rewritten by John Caird to hew much closer to Voltaire’s original story than previous versions. It’s an exhaustively full-length version that involves more running around from place to place (and, for that matter, more violence, if mostly in summary) than the Bourne trilogy. It includes some tunes that are often omitted (not entirely unjustly) such as Pangloss’ ode to syphilis “Dear Boy,” the pessimist Martin’s laughing song “Words, Words, Words,” and Cunégonde and the Old Lady’s catalog of charms “We Are Women.”

It’s a testament to the power of the music that even in this three-hour version some numbers are profoundly missed, such as the clever trio “Quiet.” Whatever the problems with the book, Bernstein got it right the first time.

It’s a tremendously ambitious work for a small, fledgling theater company to take on, particularly one that’s only done a musical once before — Virago made its debut with Threepenny Opera two years ago. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that the set is virtually nonexistent and Loreen Eggett’s many costumes are rudimentary, and sometimes the acting is as well. What’s impressive is how well Virago does justice to Bernstein’s magnificent and complex score.

The six-piece band was sometimes off on opening night, particularly during the overture, but with very few exceptions the vocal talent was strong throughout. The part of Cunégonde is tremendously demanding, especially the insane soprano flourishes in her aria “Glitter and Be Gay,” and Eileen Meredith navigates the part deftly, although the coquetry of her character is somewhat glossed over. The same excess of earnestness that seemed out of place in Lamplighters’ Ruddygore makes John Brown an absolutely perfect Candide, from his lovely tenor voice to his puppy-dog demeanor.

Dale Murphy tells the tale clearly enough as narrator Voltaire (except the few times he blanked on his lines opening night), but it’s fortunate that the writing’s so droll because his mild performance doesn’t bring much to the table. As the delusionally optimistic philosopher Pangloss he simply puts on glasses and uses a stilted diction that consists of putting an English accent on an occasional syllable.

Lisa Pan is similarly stiff as the Old Lady, even taking into account that she’s only supposed to have one buttock. Her litany of the horrors she’s endured drags on to make an unusually long lull between songs much longer than it needs to be, but she livens up nicely for her big musical numbers. Michelle Pava Mills is delightful as the hazardously luscious maid Paquette, but her speech about degradation has the same problem. They tend to slow down just when the avalanche of calamities they’re describing needs speeding up to hammer it home.

There are a number of awkward moments in artistic director Laura Lundy-Paine’s production when the ensemble stands around reacting to the principals, but there also are moments when the staging is tremendously effective, as in a haunting “Auto-da-fe” Inquisition sequence. Even when some parts seem held together by chewing gum, by and large Virago manages to pull it off. For a flawed masterpiece that’s not performed nearly often enough to begin with, that in itself feels like a gift.


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