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Cock-eyed Optimists

Los Angeles
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
01/27/2018 -  & February 3, 8, 11, 15, 18, 2018
Leonard Bernstein: Candide
Kelsey Grammer (Voltaire, Pangloss), Christine Ebersole (Old Lady), Jack Swanson (Candide), Erin Morley (Cunegonde), Theo Hoffman (Maximilian), Peabody Southwell (Paquette), Matthew Scollin (James the Anabaptist, Martin), Brian Michael Moore (Grand Inquisitor, Governor of Montevideo), Joshua Wheeker (Cacambo), Taylor Raven (Baroness, Vanderdendur, Lisbonite), Tom Berklund (Lisbonite), Tim Campbell (Bavarian Captain, Second Inquisition agent, Señor, Surinam slave), Katherine Henly (Bavarian corporal, Sheep), Danny Lindgren (King of Bavaria, Lisbon sailor, Montevideo priest), Amber Liekhus (Lisbonite, Queen of Eldorado), Robert Norman (Holland minister, Don Issachar, Señor, King of Eldorado), Steve Pence (Baron, First Inquisition agent, Galley captain), Michelle Siemens (Minister’s wife), Eboni Adams, Andrea Beasom, Tucker Reed Breder, Amanda Compton LoPresti (ensemble)
Los Angeles Opera and Chorus and Orchestra, Grant Gershon (chorus director), Roberto Cani (concertmaster), James Conlon (conductor)
Francesca Zambello (stage director), E. Loren Meeker (associate director), James Noone (set designer), Jennifer Moeller (costume designer), Mark McCullough (lighting designer), Eric Sean Fogel (choreographer)

K. Grammer (© Ken Howard)

What is it? Leonard Bernstein’s œuvres are simply “eclectic”, but where is Candide positioned? Is it opera? Broadway©? operetta? musical? LA Opera sets out to erase those question marks by addressing it in one zingy answer: turn to Francesca Zambello’s vision in this pastiche of quirky charisma.

James Conlon never expected to conduct Candide, though he led the operetta’s (we’ll classify it this way moving forward) “Overture” over 40 times...what a treat for him. The Queens-born New Yorker grew up in Leonard Bernstein’s backyard, and so there’s a keen connection to Broadway© influences hovering alongside Lincoln Center and points beyond.

Tony Award© winning actors, Kelsey Grammer and Christine Ebersole, are brought into the fold which adds a slightly different weight to Candide (neither has performed opera until now.) And though the youthful principal cast members have resumes detailing an operatic repertoire, the clarity in voice and projection bear heavier stylization of a Broadway© manière. As a blanket statement, each of these singers/actors is to be commended on the highest level.

After countless numbers of revisions (since the definitive Lillian Hellman 1956 opening), Candide is also treasured by a deep drawer of optional musical numbers, placing greater freedom for one-of-a-kind productions. LA Opera chooses the 1999 “Royal National Theatre Version” (also known as the “Glimmerglass Version”) with a synopsis by John Caird.

Best known as Dr. Frasier Crane in the hit television series, Frasier, this smug, arrogant and condescending psychiatrist’s personality dovetails nicely into M. Grammer’s rôle at The Dorothy Chandler as the philosophical Voltaire and lecherous Pangloss (he’s lusting after Paquette, broadly and mightily sung by Peabody Southwell.) Jack Swanson spouts forth with buttery tenor lyricism in the eponymous role as the optimistic Westphalian while revealing his naïveté and travails along the way. His love interest, Cunegonde (Erin Morley), is ebulliently sung with vocal pliability, and while she unabashedly nails the high E-flat notes inside the demanding coloratura aria, “Glitter and be Gay”, the rendition could use a bit more swagger.

Mark McCullough’s razor-precise lighting design helps pivot the action while syncing well with M. Conlon’s evenly appropriated tempo. Innovative movement inside Eric Sean Fogel’s choreography helps make Leonard Bernstein’s demonstrative, jerky score come alive. An opulent James Noone set design anchors inside the proscenium arch; however, it’s the use of a few mobile props and accoutrements that cleanly congeal understanding of an array of multitudinous scenes: nothing in the production goes without a hitch.

C. Ebersole, E. Morley (© Ken Howard)

Despite some perky numbers inside Act I the action plods along a bit until the arrival of Christine Ebersole as the Old Lady. She makes the rest of Candide take off like a rocket. Here, the momentum shifts with her hilariously farcical temperament, in particular the hysterical “I am Easily Assimilated.” Inside Candide Bernstein needled away at such contentious issues as religious hypocrisy and social injustices, and he was comfortable inside any level of art form, be it high, middle or low brow. What Mlle. Ebersole intelligently brings to the stage is a comedic shtick that doesn’t overreach into excesses of “The Three Stooges” syndrome: after acting for over 30 years and garnering every conceivable award Off-Broadway©, she knows what she is doing. Christine Ebersole is an artiste suprême which crystallizes in an honorable way.

Candide isn’t your ordinary operetta: it has broad appeal because controversial topics from the yesteryear are ushered into the now with guarantees of hitting at least one raw nerve in each and every one of us, causing moments of self-examination, contemplation and ways to make the best of what one has. Leonard Bernstein’s musical persuasion metes out encouragement in satirical, un-offensive decorum. Optimism is positive...optimism is good... James Conlon & Company shares with us their goodness which help one pause and reflect. Ultimately, this speaks volumes in such tumultuous times.

Christie Grimstad



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