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Friday, July 24, 2015

The Best of All Possible Worlds

THE GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL is presenting Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” as its musical-theater offering this season, and it’s an excellent choice both because Bernstein worked as well in that genre (which is to say, with genius) as he did in every other he took on, and because “Candide” itself has had such a topsy-turvy history that it benefits from any good production it can get.

David Garrison and Andrew Stenson in "Candide."
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
Good production? This one should be required viewing for any fan of musical theater. It’s a lesson in how imaginative, dynamic staging gives life to every moment that helps build a momentum that heightens the excitement of the work.

Festival artistic director Francesca Zambello helmed this one, sculpting a satisfying, often surprising arc to each scene. A good example is the celebrated “Glitter and Be Gay,” sung with virtuosic ease and a deft sense of character by Kathryn Lewek. She revealed two sides in this staging: the aria was introspective and ranged emotionally from anger to remorse; her face and movement showed us the diffidently manipulative beauty caught in her own snare of deceit. By the end of it, as she scattered jewelry across the stage, the number had built to peak both musical and dramatic – and it’s tough for the drama to compete with that tune.

The satire of “Auto-da-Fé” is heavy handed from the start; Zambello used the easy device of dividing the stage into separate playing areas but clearly knows the power built into each location and thus was able to drive the energy of the number by carefully shifting our attention from place to place.

The conceit of this production is that we’re watching a troupe, possibly from the 18th century, taking over a shabby stage and performing with bare-bones props and scenery. Every prop and scenic piece was used efficiently, cleverly, and more than once, and I haven’t seen a trunk put to such good use since the last time Bill Irwin got hold of one.

Much of the show’s success came from the performance by David Garrison as Voltaire and Dr. Pangloss, Candide’s tutor. Looking as if he’d just stepped out of “Amadeus,” Garrison’s narration was the connective tissue, heightened by his acting skill and amiability. The 1974 “Chelsea Version” of the piece gave this actor more roles still, but I think this is the most sensible distribution. Besides, it gave tenor Brad Raymond a nice turn in one of those parts as the venal Governor.

Candide himself must be believable not only at the outset as a wide-eyed (but horny) innocent, but also one whose innocence falls away in bits and pieces. Andrew Stenson, last seen here in John Musto’s “Later the Same Evening,” and Copland’s “The Tender Land,” triumphs in the lead, bringing sparkle to his scenes and to songs like “Life Is Happiness Indeed,” while finding sincere pathos in his Lament.

Act One ends with the smart and funny song “I Am Easily Assimilated,” and mezzo Marietta Simpson brought a gloriously deadpan passion to it – in a scene that culminated in a full-chorus dance expertly choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel. Another standout was Matthew Scollin as the droll Martin, whose “Words, Words, Words” sets the stage for Candide’s eventual rejection of his tutor’s unworkable philosophy.

Dr. Pangloss preaches the belief that we’re in the “Best of All Possible Worlds,” and when a banner reading OPTIMISM is unfurled upstage, it signifies the rose-colored philosophy of Leibniz, who was better with math than with outlook, but who at least gave us the latter-day likes of Émile Coué. Voltaire, a master satirist, easily blasted such misguided thinking out of the water by applying a succession of historic events through which his protagonist wanders, including war, natural disaster, and, as everybody expects, the Spanish Inquisition.

Lillian Hellman wrote the musical’s original book, and took it upon herself to be even nastier than Voltaire. That didn’t work, even after Richard Wilbur was brought in to lighten the lyrics. Stephen Sondheim, who added lyrics to the Chelsea Version (a few of which remain in this production) termed Wilbur’s work “are the most elegantly witty (and funny) ever written for the stage.”

Hugh Wheeler lightened the text for the Chelsea Version, and a succession of lyrists rejiggered the original songs until Bernstein himself reworked the show into what still took a few years to evolve into its present form. It was worth the effort. Its story resonates more than ever. The score is one of Bernstein’s best (Sondheim names it as his favorite), and the Glimmerglass orchestra, conducted by Joseph Colaneri, sounds terrific performing it. Best of all: there’s no amplification. This is what musical theater was meant to be.

Music by Leonard Bernstein; book by Hugh Wheeler and John Caird
Lyrics by Richard Wilbur, with additions by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lilliam Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Leonard Bernstein.
Directed by Francesca Zambello
Conducted by Joseph Colaneri
The Glimmerglass Festival, July 19

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