“Candide,” with music by Leonard Bernstein and a book originally by Lillian Hellman, is a famously problematic show. It’s too long, the tone is inconsistent, the characters confusing.
But Long Beach Opera’s production, which premiered the other night at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, is fast-moving, consistently engaging, and delightful. Go figure.
Director David Schweizer jettisoned much of the script and replaced it with a narrator in the person of Voltaire, the source material’s author, played by Robin Buck. Buck also moved in and out of the action as Dr. Pangloss, Candide’s mentor. The conceit, which had Voltaire conducting what appeared to be a first reading of his work, kept the action moving briskly and clarified the often-convoluted proceedings.
Sean T. Cawelti’s Rogue Artists Ensemble contributed masks, puppets and shadow play, which allowed the audience’s imagination to bridge wide expanses of geography and time frame. The entire production was endlessly creative and just plain fun, and the large audience ate it up.
The cast, as is usual with LBO, was excellent. In addition to Buck, who here added to his resume of memorable and masterful characterizations, the stage was populated with company veterans; Roberto Perlas Gomez and Danielle Marcelle Bond sang and acted with verve and energy in multiple roles. The redoubtable Suzan Hanson came close to stealing the show as, among other things, The Old Woman with one buttock — don’t ask.
In the title role, Todd Strange was pretty ideal, firm and resonant of voice and a likable, sympathetic stage presence. Jamie Chamberlain contributed a particularly gay and glittering “Glitter and Be Gay,” which as usual brought down the house.
Two LBO newcomers, Arnold Livingston Geis and Zeffin Quinn Hollis, impressed with their versatility in multiple roles and in the quality of their singing and acting. And throughout, having singers take on a variety of characters helped to streamline the action and move things along.
Lori Meeker’s costumes were colorful and inventive, if occasionally X-rated. Sara Nishida’s lighting was effective within the O’Neill’s limitations. And Kristof Van Grysperre conducted the excellent chamber orchestra with style and authority, creating a truly distinguished musical experience.
LBO usually employs supertitles, and here they didn’t. There was a trade-off; I don’t like the things myself, and find them distracting. But it must be said that Bernstein’s orchestration, even in the small orchestra arrangement, is rather thick, and we lost a lot of the words in these famously wordy, literate lyrics. Titles might have helped.
And finally, there was a stunning coup de theatre at the end, which I won’t reveal, lifting that best of all possible finales, “Make Our Garden Grow,” into the realm of spectacle. The ultimate stage picture was a fabulously satisfying ending to a stellar evening of musical theater.
Chalk up another hit for Long Beach Opera.