Opera in the Heights Works its Magic With Candide

Benjamin Robinson as the world-traveling Candide
Benjamin Robinson as the world-traveling Candide Photo courtesy of Opera in the Heights
There are so many glories to be gleaned from Opera in the Heights' spirited production of Leonard Bernstein's “operetta” adaptation of Voltaire's masterpiece Candide (1956) that it seems almost churlish to point out its faults. But the show, however so splendidly produced and sung, remains a mash of Voltaire's patented irony and satire that never quite gels with its eager-to-please Broadway roots.

The original book was written by acidic, pro-Soviet playwright Lillian Hellman (Toys in the Attic, Watch on the Rhine, The Little Foxes) who saw this tale of innocent Candide who experiences the follies of the world – political, religious, economic, social, personal – as a mirror of our own times, especially the '50s hunt for covert communists under the House on Un-American Activities Committee.

The Lisbon “auto-da-fé sequence” was drafted as a pointed attack against the contemporaneous Senate investigations conducted by the manically obsessed Senator Joseph McCarthy. Poet Richard Wilbur wrote the lyrics to Bernstein's sublime melodies. At the same time, Bernstein (already famous as conductor, classical composer, TV star, and Broadway baby for On The Town, Wonderful Town, and the ballet Fancy Free) was also working on what would be his most endearing work, which would premiere a year later, West Side Story.

His prodigious musical gifts are much in evidence in Candide, one of the most distinguished, original scores of any musical. Full of wit, harmonic and rhythmic idiosyncrasies, swelling love ballads, stirring chorales, his music is meant for the stage. He pays homage to Gilbert and Sullivan, Lehar, and Strauss, but the overall style is all-Bernstein. (You can hear the deep influence he would have on young impressionable Stephen Sondheim, his lyricist on West Side Story and itching to compose.) That radiant overture is reason enough for appreciation: a perennial concert staple, bouncy, comic, at times Barnum and Bailey. Under Maestro Eiki Isomura, the OH orchestra romps through this perpetual mobile and has never sounded so focused while having such fun.

But poor Candide never got off the ground at the premiere. The cast recording created a cult following, but the show closed after 70-some performances to rather lukewarm reviews. So forever after in each subsequent revival, the show's been punched, pinched, and Botoxed. Completely rewritten after Hellman refused to allow her original book to be used in further rewrites, there's been a revolving stream of book writers, librettists, adapters. Scenes have been shifted, excised, then re-inserted; characters have been eliminated; songs rearranged or even newly composed by Bernstein himself. There's no definitive version. And that's the reason the show has an unsteady vibe. It never has found its feet. (It's closest imitator, Stephen Schwartz's Pippin, though limned with much less musical genius, suffers the same fate.)

OH uses the “Scottish” edition, created for the Scottish Opera in 1988. And even this one has been recently adapted. Every company, it seems, reimagines its own.

But OH's production is blessed by the eye and mind of director Lynda McKnight. Her vision of Candide is pure stage magic. We can tell this even before the sprightly overture begins. In Jonathan Dahm Roberston's sparkling scene design, suitcases pile on each side of the stage; there's a globe on top; five white doors, as in a Feydeau farce, frame the backdrop; a projected TV news ticker crawls across the bottom: BREAKING NEWS: STUDY FINDS, THIS BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS. This so perfectly sets the tone that when the chorus bursts through the doors we immediately find ourselves in a comic book world. Wait until you see the Necco wafer-colored coats and funny socks, plaids against stripes, silly wigs, polka dot dresses. Costumer Macy Lyne, one of Houston theater's best, outdoes even herself. This candy-colored fantasy world is ripe and happy, so optimistic – so like innocent Candide.

McKnight works her magic throughout. Her singers are consummate actors, no small matter when you've got to overcome the see-saw picaresque adventures of our hero, the constant reincarnations of the characters, the incessantly rhyming lyrics, and a feeling of been-there-done-that when the story begins to repeat. (Two songs by Pangloss about contracting syphilis?) It's an inconsistent tone that must be worked through or disguised, but McKnight shines with constant surprises in staging.

In keeping with the vaudeville touch, look for the fan dance throwaway, when the debauched gamblers in Venice surround Pangloss with fistfuls of money, á la the feather revolve in Chicago. Or when Candide leaves Westphalia, what does he pack? How about the record album of West Side Story? Brilliant. Or during Cunegonde's show-stopping aria, “Glitter and Be Gay,” coloratura soprano Kathryn Bowden (absolutely show-stopping herself) licks the strand of pearls with comic erotic relish. There are countless such highlights. There's joy in this staging, and a master's touch.

The cast is super. Curly-haired tenor Benjamin Robinson, in tennis shorts and knee highs, is all wide-eyed innocence. When his eyes are eventually opened to the way of the world, and his long-lost love Cunegonde is within reach, Bernstein gives him that sublime revelation, “Nothing More Than This.” Robinson soars into adulthood and breaks our heart.

As mentioned above, Bowden, as Cunegonde, is beyond reach. A fine comic actress, her voice is pure crystal. She makes the fiendishly difficult “Glitter” sound as easy as inhaling. Like Candide, who wouldn't traverse the world and brave any danger to find her? Apparently the Metropolitan Opera has found her, too, where she spelled Kathryn Lewek last season as Mozart's Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute. She's a special talent and any operaphile should rush to OH to hear her.

Bass baritone Michael Scarelle parlays his four roles (Voltaire, Pangloss, Cacambo, Martin) with utter distinction and urbane charm. He even look like Voltaire. Mezzo Tara Curtis, with cigarette dangling from her lips and an air of slatternly “assimilation,” runs away with the sly comedy in the role of Old Lady, who's seen her share of troubles, having lost one of her buttocks to a ravenous Russian. Watch her reactions to what's going on around her. It's a tutorial in comic timing. But it's her stentorian mezzo that's truly a study in vocal technique.

Tenor Brian Yeakley, baritone Rameen Chaharbaghi, mezzo Monica Isomura, and baritone Austin Hoeltzel add special luster to the roster of young singers who are poised for success. Candide would be poorer if not for them.

OH keeps amazing us. Under loving hands, Candide, a potpourri of inveterate revivals (an opera, an operetta, a musical comedy, a Broadway show), glitters and gleams. Go be dazzled.

Candide continues at 2 p.m Sunday, April 22; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 19; and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 21 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $12.50 – $74.50

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover