By CB Adams
The title Candide (music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Hugh Wheeler, after Voltaire) is just about the only thing tame about Union Avenue Opera’s lively, entertaining, must-see production.
Based on the 1759 novella by that Age of Enlightenment philosopher, writer, historian and all-around bon vivant Francois-Marie Arouet (better known as Voltaire), UAO’s production remains true to the irreverent, satirical and picaresque nature of Voltaire’s story and Bernstein’s musical take on it (hint: a quick internet search will yield abundant descriptions of the story).
Voltaire was a deep, learned, philosophical man with a sense of humor this is often more in tune with Monty Python than the Enlightenment – and this Candide runs delightfully wild as a result. Were it not for Voltaire’s smirking, snarky source material, Candide would be a dirge as it careens through an exhaustive list of Debbie Downerisms, including (but certainly not limited to) xenophobia, sedition, venereal disease, lying, cheating, murdering, death by hanging and burning, war crimes, and blaspheming clergymen.
To borrow a phrase from the business world, this Candide is perfectly vertically integrated – with every element of a great production in place, top to bottom. On the operatic spectrum, this Candide, with lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Bernstein, is more toward the musical theater end. It is the perfect operetta for those with an attention span raised on social media.
And that’s a good thing. Making her UAO stage debut, Annamaria Pileggi’s stage direction was spot on. She used every corner of Union Avenue’s modest stage and kept the large cast moving about like delightfully frantic chess pieces. Though the action was fast-paced and spirited, C. Otis Sweezey’s scenic design, clever as a Swiss Army knife, ensured the audience was never confused as the story unfolded from Westphalia to Lisbon, Paris, Spain and even to El Dorado in South America, among other locales.
Case in point: A set of chairs was cleverly used for a variety of purposes, from simply sitting to executions. A large compass rose predominated the stage by indicating the characters’ journeys and keeping the audience apprised of the locations. This, combined with Michael Sullivan’s adaptable lighting, added to the visual enjoyment of this production, as did Teresa Doggett’s clever costume designs.
Adding to the experience is Bernstein’s wide-ranging musical choices. Scott Schoonover conducted a strong, lively orchestra through a myriad of musical styles ranging from choral passages to arias and even a polka. Like the other components of this Candide, what should look and sound like chaos simply works – and works beautifully.
The crown jewels of this production were the vocal talents of Jesse Darden as Candide, Brooklyn Snow as Cunegonde, Charlie Tingen as Maximillian and Christine Brewer as The Old Lady. Darden, Tingen and Snow made their Union Avenue Opera debuts. This Candide benefited from the alchemy of these performers – individually and interactively while fully commanding their roles and vocal talents.
The tenor Darden as Candide captures the essence of his character as he transforms from an innocent, naïve youth to a more mature, wizened citizen of the world. In addition to the beauty of his voice, he convincingly conveyed his character’s essence through facial expressions and body language.
Candide may be the central character of this operetta, but it takes a large cast around him to bring the story to life. As Candide’s love interest, Snow’s Cunegonde held her own. As played by Snow, she’s resourceful, plucky and sweet-voiced. One of Candide’s signature songs is “Glitter and Be Gay,” and Snow practically stole the show with her rendition.
Some of the evening’s best comic moments belonged to Brewer’s Old Lady. Brewer’s seemingly effortless portrayal of a woman of woe with buttocks issues propelled several scenes with alacrity and aplomb. Also notable was Gina Malone as the diminutive, sparkly maid Paquett and Tingen as the silly and effete Maximillian.
This Candide also benefits from a deep bench of supporting talent, some in multiple roles. The most stretched performer was probably baritone Thomas Gunther who quick-changed among the characters of Voltaire, Dr. Pangloss, Martin and Cacambo. The audience delighted in anticipating his persona and costume transformations. Similarly, Greg Johnston, making his UAO stage debut, skipped among five characters, including the ludicrous Baron of Thunder-Ten-Tronck.
Union Avenue Opera presents “Candide” on July 5-6, 12-13, at Union Avenue Christian Church. For more information, visit www.unionavenueopera.org