Arts Listings

The Theater: Virago Stages Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ in Alameda

By Ken Bullock, Special to The Planet
Friday February 29, 2008

Candide, Voltaire’s long, comically hair-rending parable of optimism amidst the evil in the world, occupied composer Leonard Bernstein for decades, resulting in many revisions of his intended masterwork of musical theater. Feisty Virago Theatre Company, which has taken on various theatrical challenges (including a creatively site-specific Threepenny Opera in the Alameda Oddfellows Hall), turn their greatest challenge to date into a paradox: a sprawling, three-hour show, with a six-piece chamber orchestra and cast of 13 playing over 40 roles, that is somehow intimate and refreshing, even breezy. 

Voltaire’s tale spins out a very long end to innocence, as innocuous love-child Candide, raised with the children of the gentry on a German estate that is the perfect Leibnizian monad, falls terrifically in love with Cunegunde, the daughter of the estate-holder, when the two encounter their enthusiast teacher, Dr. Pangloss, in the embrace of a buxom servant girl. When he asks for Cunegunde’s hand, Candide is summarily ousted from the domain, with nowhere to go and the wide world in front of him. 

(In his polemic against the Church and its post-Counter-Reformation apologists, as well as other creeds, Voltaire makes a perfect transposition of Genesis and the expulsion from the Garden, with Dr. Pangloss as the unwitting Tree of Knowledge in what he does, not says. It’s a Fall that the Age of Sensibility could endorse.) 

Candide, snatched up by a military recruiting party and taken to war (a real local angle for Berkeley spectators), deserts. He roams Europe and then the world, or at least South America, hoping to find his love again amidst the horrors of earthquake in Lisbon, intolerance everywhere (except the utopian El Dorado), cunning and treachery ... and he does, in fact, find everyone, including Cunegunde, over and over, even after he hears or even witnesses their diverse and terrible ends.  

Just like Candide’s hard-to-die innocence and optimism, his old friends keep popping up, telling of horrors, seemingly untouched by their ongoing prejudices and questionable actions. 

But our hero finally takes the bull by the horns after a final disillusionment in Venice, leading the rest to a valley in the Alps (which reminds him of El Dorado), where they may all live in cooperation and tend their garden. 

Bernstein’s music is as wayward as Candide himself, a panoply of styles, quotes and echoes. The half dozen musicians under David Manley keep it lively through its many and various swings in mood. John Brown makes a fine Candide, a strapping lad who approaches the blows of reality (and his role) with wide open eyes and straight-forward manner and voice. Eileen Meredith (Polly in Virago’s Threepenny) is an operatic Cunegunde, fine in her solos (like “Glitter and Be Gay”) and especially her duet with “The Old Woman,” a charming and witty Lisa Pan, assessing their chances in Uruguay, “We Are Women” (“Little women; little, little women!”). Pan herself produces a show stopper with her “Spanish” production number, “I Am Easily Assimilated,” trumping her young lovers-in-tow (as they escape post-quake Portugal and the Inquisition) with her greater tales of woe that have left her with just one buttock to sit on, though she still manages to turn the other cheek ... and live it up. 

Dale Murphy (familiar to those who follow Bay Area composer Brian Holmes’ comic operas), as narrator Voltaire and the eternal optimist Pangloss, strikes just the right genial note. Michelle Pava Mills (who played Jenny in Threepenny Opera) strikes other chords indeed (including Pangloss’s) as the pulchritudinous Paquette, met later on the Rialto as a hooker. And Abraham Aviles-Scott, an operatic tenor, does an adroit pas de deux with his moustachio as Governor in Montevideo, with an eye for Candide’s lady love. Alex Goldenberg and Anthony Shaw Abate are spirited as Candide’s friends, sympathetic comrade-in-arms Cacambo and cynical Martin, as is Sandra Rubay as the Baroness.  

Such brief mentions short-change both those mentioned and the others, onstage and off, directed with both flexibility and assuredness by Virago cofounder Laura Lundy-Paine and choreographed by Lisa Bush Finn.  

It’s a happy event, despite the worldwide attrition (all in the past, anyway), with the three hours whizzing by, all looking and sounding good against the brick walls and under the curved ceilings of Alameda’s Rhythmix Cultural Works. The edition of what many (including the composer) regard as Bernstein’s magnum opus is that of the Royal National Theatre, book by Hugh Wheeler, with Richard Wilbur’s lyrics—as well as lyrics by Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, John LaTouche, Bernstein himself and Stephen Sondheim. 



Presented by Virago Theatre Company 

at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 7 p.m. Sunday at Rhythmix Cultural Works, 2513 Blanding Ave., Alameda. $15-$25. 865-6237.