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A Timely "Candide"
Stage Review by Sylvia Drake, Times Theater Critic, The Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1992

When the Colony Studio Theatre decided to revive "Candide," fate had a hand in it.  Can there be a more cynical time — ergo a better time — to revive "Candide" than right now?

To steal shamelessly (and repeatedly) from Voltaire, on whose best of all possible satires this good-natured musical is based, it is always the best of all possible times to revive it. "Candide" speaks volumes about human contrariness in the best of all possible ways: with a cunning and a sly wit.

We’re talking here about a revival of the 1974 "Candide," the conceptual one by Harold Prince who appropriated the original 1956 Leonard Bernstein music and Richard Wilbur lyrics from Stephan Sondheim and John LaTouche, threw out the Lillian Hellman book and persuaded Hugh Wheeler to provide a new and much funnier one. The new show, with its near-farcical touches and environmental setting, became the hit of that Broadway season.

What’s amazing is how snugly a musical as potentially large as this one fits the tight quarters of the Colony. If the Colony’s production of "The Last Metro" last year achieved nothing else, it proved that large-scale musicals can be adapted to small spaces. But this time, with Bernstein, Voltaire and Rachel Sheppard on board, the Colony couldn’t lose. Rachel Sheppard . . . ?

Sheppard plays the beleaguered Cunegonde, Candide’s beloved, the exquisite songbird who survives gang rape by the Westphalian soldiers (or were they Bulgarian? A uniform is a uniform is a . . .) and the unwelcome attentions of two wealthy men to emerge years later richer for her pains and not at all the worse for wear.

It’s a matter of attitude. Sheppard’s neo-burlesque rendition of the vocally complex "Glitter and Be Gay" is smart and sassy. Thanks to director Evan Weinstein’s boundless imagination, this moment of reflection on the calculable compensations of pearls and diamonds becomes the highlight of a show that has plenty to recommend it.

Take the notion of making a statement with a corner of the landscape. "A desolate heath," as solemnly announced by Carla Bowers, is represented by placing a five-and-dime ceramic cactus with a dog baying at the moon on a bare platform. A judge at the Sparfish Inquisition walks around with a miniature pair of scales sewn onto his skull-cap. Susan Gratch did the all-purpose sets and Ted C. Giammona the fanciful costumes.

"Not bad on a budget, hey?" suggests Timothy Davis-Reed, who plays Voltaire and the unflappable Pangloss (he of the best of all possible possibles) with no pretense at all: not at realism and not at age, which he dispatches with a wig, a stoop, a pair of specs and a phony crack in the voice.  "Use your imagination," he chirps. "God knows we are!"

It is this yanking us in and out of the artifice that lets us savor the joke in the staging.  Weinstein’s inventiveness never repeats itself while trawling through history’s hot spots: Bulgaria, Westphalia, Madrid, Cadiz, Montevideo, Cartagena, El Dorado, Constantinople.

Chris Van Fleet’s Candide is the right Everyman for the job: not too handsome, not too bright, not too good, not too dumb. Tom Shea’s Maximilian is so full of himself one wonders how he avoids surfeiting on the diet, and Christina Botek’s Paquette is all wide-eyed fakery and Pepsodent smiles.

The one-buttoked Old Lady could fare better at the hands of Annie Heller (a little more subtlety, please), but it is the enthusiasm of the ensemble and Weinstein’s ability to foster it that makes this "Candide" so infectious.

Of course, the classy music and lyrics don’t hurt, from Candide and Cunegonde’s "Oh Happy We" to his solo "It Must Be So," her exceptional "Glitter and Be Gay" and the rousing "Auto da Fe," or what a slam-bang day for an execution. Stephan Applegate’s musical direction and conductor Frank Basile make the four musicians (Basile included) sound like a roomful. But perhaps it’s the sheer contagiousness of the entire package that creates the illusion.

By the time they get to the "Make Our Garden Grow" finale, it’s difficult to sit still.

Weinstein, whose recent background is dominated by film and television, has respectable theater credits to which he can now add this clever "Candide." As for Sheppard, she illustrates Voltaire’s point. Her sure pitch, high notes, comic timing, golden locks, and sheer spunk should open the best of all possible doors. . . .

Copyright 1992 Los Angeles Times 
Reprinted with Permission
Candide at the Colony Theatre.