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Smells like team spirit

Verizon Hall
06/20/2019 -  & June 21*, 22, 2019
Leonard Bernstein: Candide
Bradley Cooper & Corey Mulligan (narrators), Alex Shrader (Candide), Erin Morley (Cunegonde), Denyce Graves (The Old Lady), Kevin Vortmann (Dr. Pangloss), Timothy McDevitt (Maximillian), Amanda Lynn Bottoms (Paquette), William Burden (Governor), Benjamin Krumreig (Captain), Curtis Bannister (Prince Ragotski), Daniel Rowan (Baron), Isabel Santiago (Baroness), J.D.Webster (Heresy Agent, Ensemble), Meredith Lustig (Sheep, Ensemble), Ward Billeisen (Prisoner, Ensemble), Nicholas Cunningham (Sailor, Ensemble)
Philadelphia Symphonic Choir, Joe Miller (Conductor), The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Conductor)
Kevin Newbury (Stage Director), Leslie Stifelman (Music Supervisor), Melissa Rae Mahon (Choreographer)

(© Jessica Griffin)

Divo buff in a tight blue jersey, Yannick Nézet-Séguin looked pumped as he bounded on the Verizon Hall stage to conduct Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. His swagger even upstaging Hollywood stars Bradley Cooper and Cary Mulligan who were the ringer narrators that helped make this concert staging of Lenny’s operetta – Bernstein’s lusty musical version of Voltaire’s dizzying satire of war, sex, philosophy, sin, politics and – oh, lest we forget love – the hottest ticket in town.

Opera director Kevin Newbury collaborated with Nézet-Séguin on Bernstein’s Mass (2015) and West Side Story in concert (2017). The director upping the stakes on Voltaire’s madcap adventure with a muddy field of colliding dramaturg by launching Candide’s globe-trotting odyssey in Westphalia High School circa 1992.

The orchestra is configured at the back of the stage and the action takes place in front, with sketch comedy set pieces. The tug of war between the music and the staging for Candide has always been a challenge. The original production had similar staging problems and Richard Wilbur’s book and further meshugas with a stew of additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John LaTouche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman and Bernstein himself. Philadelphia Orchestra chose the concert version by Sondheim specialist Lonny Price.

But before the Westphalia scenario busts open in the football locker room, with the expected sex and gallows kicks off, the Philadelphians play a most shimmering and muscled Candide overture that just spikes through Verizon Hall, so evocative of Bernstein’s composing at the height of his powers. Yannick in the past two seasons has put his imprimatur on much of Bernstein’s music in celebration of Lenny’s centennial. He obviously was having a victory lap conducting Candide, even part of the action – hilariously mugging to the audience, getting a contact high in a pot scene or being the literal butt end of a Voltairian buggery joke, this maestro was game.

Meanwhile, the central story of Candide’s enduring love for Cunegonde, the flirty innocent in a pink school uniform who is caught making out with him, tagged a slut and cast out as a sex worker. And Candide, the naïve, horny dreamer is also banished to a life of war and corruption. At Westphalia, hormones are raging and there is the sexed lecture with Voltaire’s instruction on avoiding syphilis when at war, is transposed to an AIDS lecture, with Dr. Pangloss having students putting condoms on bananas. Juvenile sex jokes this side of Grease somehow give way to a musical that depicts Voltaire’s story of sex trafficking, war carnage, and murderous sedition.

Newbury’s decamps and vamps from every angle, with lots of physical comedy and Melissa Mahan’s choreography has clunky moments, the goofiness is part of it and the cast of singer-actors are game for team spirit. Meanwhile, throws a lot of messaging in about sexism, racism, homophobia, harassment and our toxic political world. With so much stuff going on, the focus goes missing at several points, especially in the first act. Just as it starts to cloy with too much business Newbury strategically gets out of his own way and somehow it all comes together when Erin Morley sings “Glitter and Be Gay.” Morley’s silvery soprano is triumphant, especially in biting counterpoint to Lenny’s “très tragique” violin duet as masterfully played by concertmaster David Kim. The orchestral gallop and Morley nailing those tricky scales, as light as her and kicky choreo in those red pumps and to die for red tulle and satin ensemble.

By this point the equally glittery and gay orchestra sails this score over the musical goal-post throughout, with a clarion depth of sound throughout and Nézet-Séguin’s robust tempos kicking in where it matters most. And the field clears for a thrilling lead vocal cast, Alex Shrader has a gold-tone tenor that just radiates quiet sincerity in the arias. Mezzo Denyce Graves is The Old Woman, who explains everything in the divalicious drama. Graves was a bit underpowered in her first number “I Am Easily Assimilated” but lets loose the full voice mezzo in “We Are Women” duet with Morley and the flamenco fireworks of “What’s the Use?” Kevin Vortmann’s steely tenor perfect as the rebel cool prof Dr. Pangloss is one for the Candide books on the rousing “The Best of All Possible Worlds” and in his deadpan sage cynicism about the world’s failure to fulfill its own humanity. Tenor William Burden also vocally fine as ever even cast against his heroic type as a creepy official.

The supporting cast’s best scenes are in Act II. Baritone Timothy McDevitt as the uninhibitedly fey Maximillian, Candide’s half-loyal half-brother, Mezzo-soprano Amanda Bottoms, a recent alum of the Curtis Institute, gives a breakout performance as a goth drag voluptuary Paquette. As Prince Ragotski, Curtis Banister gorgeous tenor makes you almost forget that his character is a sinister sex trader. Everything comes together for such a fitting season finale in Lenny’s gift to the world that keeps giving in the show’s finale “Make Our Garden Grow “ and on this night Bernstein’s radiant musical rainbow in full bloom, when we need to hear it most.

Lewis Whittington



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