The Lamplighters’ Candide

Dave and I went back this afternoon to see the Lamplighters’ production of Candide — which is playing this weekend at the Lesher Theater in Walnut Creek — another time. There’s one more performance in W.C. tomorrow, and then the following weekend they play in Mountain View. It’s a terrific production, full of liveliness and humor and color and satire.

There are also a lot of friends and colleagues of ours in the production, which makes it a double pleasure for us. Phil Lowery, who directed the 2009 steampunk production of my adaptation of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, directs this production, and does a terrific job; Adam Flowers, who sang Hoffmann in that same production, has two very funny turns as the governor of Montevideo and a wealthy slaveowner in Surinam; Kelcey Jay Poe, who both choreographed that production and performed in the ensemble, both choreographs and performs in the ensemble in this production; and then there are Jennifer Ashworth, Sam Rabinowitz, and Bill Neely from last year’s production of Die Fledermaus, or The Bat Bites Back, and John Rouse from the first production (in 1996) of my Bat out of Hell, and Arie Singer, who I met a few years back when she took part in a reading of a work in progress of mine, and so on. Great fun to see so many people I have worked with and admire and love in such an enjoyable production.

Dave and I were particularly impressed by the fact that Jennifer, who is one of the two performers alternating as Cunegonde, does something in the final lines of “Glitter and Be Gay” that takes it over the top in a way that totally works (or it did for us, anyway), is hilarious, and that we don’t remember ever seeing done before — and we’ve both seen the number performed a whole lot of times by now. I won’t give away what it is that Jennifer did, because half the fun was that we totally did not see it coming.

I also have to mention the awesome comic excellence of Phil Wong, who is playing the role of Cacambo, a character from Voltaire who has not been used in other versions of the musical. Personally, I am torn. As a librettist I am very conscious of dramatic structure, and from the point of view of libretto structure (which is quite a different thing from, say, novella structure), omitting the character of Cacambo is very obviously a good idea. However, I am also a playgoer, and Mr. Wong is really, really delightful to watch, even totally stealing the show from the rest of the cast at a few points; this is the first time I can recall seeing him, and if the writer of this libretto had not included Cacambo, I wouldn’t have had that pleasure. So, like I said, I’m torn about that.

The production is sort of a staged concert version. There’s no real set, just a simple platform that runs along the back of the stage and a ramp that comes diagonally forward from it. But each of the show’s many, many changes of place — from Westphalia to Holland to Paris to Lisbon to Cadiz, and that’s just Act One — brings on a fresh wave of colorful costumes for the company, so there’s always something eye-filling going on.

As for the particular version of Candide that the Lamplighters are doing, however — well, it’s a great tribute to the talents of Phil and the cast and the rest of the company that the show is as enjoyable as it is and that the audience remains enthusiastic to the end, because this version of the libretto is an overlong mess. The show runs a bit over three hours, even though this production is briskly paced; it’s just that this version of the libretto includes rather too many songs and takes rather too many detours along the way.

There have been many revisions of Candide over the decades, so there are lots of songs to choose from if you want to create yet another. A couple weeks ago, after we saw this production for the first time (and had immediately decided we wanted to see it again), Dave was wondering about where the different songs had been used and was comparing recordings, and he noticed that this version — which is the Royal National Theatre version, first done in 1999 — has exactly the same songs as Bernstein’s own “final revised” version from 1989 but in a different order. So I’m guessing that the Royal National Theatre’s intention with this version was to use all the same songs that Bernstein chose, but to fit them all into a libretto that sticks more closely to the order of events as given in Voltaire’s novella.

One big problem, it seems to me, is that this libretto sticks far too closely to Voltaire’s novella. In this version, Voltaire (played from the conductor’s stand by Baker Peeples) is actually before us as the narrator, often reciting to us long stretches of the novel that, however witty they are, do not exactly serve to hurry the story along. Furthermore, the songs often convey to us the same things that the novella does (which, after all, is the function they were written to serve). This means that if Voltaire reads to us a considerable chunk of the corresponding portion of the novella first, as happens over and over again in this libretto, the songs lose some portion of their punch and surprise.

Then again, a number of the songs in this version seem to me to be just plain in the wrong place. Ever since the New York City Opera version in 1982, for example, it seems to be the thing to have the Act One Finale occur in Spain with the decision to travel to the New World. But the show was originally written to have the Act One Finale occur later in the story, in the New World when Candide decides to travel to the fabled city of El Dorado. I find this more recent placement of the finale disconcerting (and did when I saw the 1982 version, too) because the contrapuntal finale is based on the song “My Love”, which is sung in the New World and which, therefore, we aren’t going to hear until Act Two. It’s as though you were listening to a Beethoven symphony and for some inexplicable reason the orchestra decided to play the complex development of the main theme before it had played the unadorned main theme by itself even once. Musically, that’s just wrong, so wrong. It robs the finale of its sense of building on music you’ve heard earlier, and then in the second act it robs “My Love” of its own musical effectiveness, because it feels now like a reprise, not a new song.

Then there is “We Are Women”, which surely must have been written for when Cunegonde and Old Woman are in Venice, or at least nearing Venice, or perhaps at the very earliest when they are still in South America but have already made the decision to go to Venice. The music suggests a tyrolienne (especially when we get to the all-but-yodeling countermelody), the lyrics make several explicit references to Italy, and it was clearly part of Bernstein’s scheme that the music for Candide would be in a hodgepodge of national styles that reflected Candide’s whirlwind travels through Europe and the New World. So when the women sing the duet immediately on arriving in, um, Montevideo, it feels like it got accidentally bumped into the wrong scene.

Using the song at this point in the story also has the effect of clashing with “My Love” immediately following, because the whole point of “We Are Women” is that Cunegonde is consciously deciding that she will use her feminine charms to survive (and putting the song in this position means that she is saying that she is going to seduce the Governor in order to get things from him), while the point of “My Love” is that the Governor is trying to seduce Cunegonde; she hasn’t done anything to attract his attentions, and in fact the Old Woman has to pressure her into entertaining his offer at all.

(Which is yet another reason why “We Are Women” would work better leading into the Venice scene: because that’s where Cunegonde is at the stage in her character development that she is ready to express those ideas, to own the decision to prostitute herself. Back in Montevideo, she is in denial, willing to sell herself if the price is right, but rationalizing to herself that she’s doing it only for noble reasons, still hanging on to her illusions about her honor and virtue. The Cunegonde who sings of her “virginal condition” in “My Love” and who has to be pressured by the Old Women into negotiating a good price for her sexual favors is not yet the Cunegonde who can boast brightly in “We Are Women” about men’s inability to resist her sexual attractiveness; and yet this version of Candide puts the latter song right before the former.)

Then there’s the way “The King’s Barcarole” is used near the end, with Candide’s overhearing of it being how he gets the idea to start a humble farm. This seems to me like a bad place and use for the song for several structural reasons. First, the humor in the song lies in the slow and pompous formality with which the six kings are conducting their discussion — but then, is such a slow and pompously formal song, sung by six very, very minor characters in your story, really what you want to put this late in such a long show, when the audience is getting decidedly impatient for the main characters’ story to reach its conclusion? Second, if Candide really gets the idea for his farm just from overhearing this song, then has he actually learned anything from his adventures? Isn’t he showing that he’s still quite willing to go and base his whole life on the philosophizing of silly people? All he’s doing, really, is transferring his naïve faith from Dr. Pangloss to six silly kings passing by; he has yet really to learn to think for himself.

And then third, a librettist who is fashioning a libretto around these songs does not need in any case to contrive an explanation for why Candide decides to buy a farm, because Candide tells us himself that this is his dream in the lyrics of “Oh Happy We”, way back in the first scene of the show. Indeed, it seems pretty likely that this is exactly why the farm is mentioned in that song in the first scene, so that when Candide makes his decision later in the final scene, we’ll see that he is thinking for himself at last after a lifetime of letting others do his thinking for him. If you’re going to use the songs, why not let them carry the parts of the story that they were written to carry?

After all the criticism I’ve just made of this version of the libretto, I now have to hang a uey and say that the libretto nevertheless passes what for me is the single most important test of any version of Candide: Whatever else, “Make Our Garden Grow” at the very end of the show has gotta move you. If this finale feels false and overblown after all that has come before it, if I don’t tear up at least a little, if I find myself feeling like the characters have done nothing and learned nothing to justify their singing of these eloquent verses set to this glorious music, then the libretto has failed in its single most important job. I’ve seen the 1974 Broadway revival version and the 1982 New York City Opera version performed (the former twice, the latter only once but by the NYCO itself), and both have left me dry-eyed and unsatisfied at the end. This 1999 version, though, not only moved me but had me actually crying, beginning at that wonderful moment in the final chorus when the entire company is singing and orchestra drops out, leaving the company singing without accompaniment. It’s such a simple musical effect, but amazingly powerful when the moment feels true, and it felt true to me at both performances I saw. For all that I have been grousing about a number of the choices that the writer of this libretto made, the final effect, at least in this production, is deeply moving.

For me, the best version of the libretto to Candide is still probably the original one by Lillian Hellman. It moves swiftly; it’s pointedly, bitingly funny; and — maybe this is important only to me, but hey — the structure of its story is the one that the songs were actually written to work with. I say probably the best, though, because I’ve never actually seen Hellman’s original libretto performed; I’ve only read it, but many times and with a lot of pleasure. It clearly has its problems, too, but boy, I wish I could see half the talent and effort go into strengthening its few flawed scenes that has gone into replacing it altogether. When a revival was planned in the 1970s, Hellman was told that another writer was being brought in, over her objections, to revise the book, and in response Hellman refused permission for so much as one line of her writing to be used at all. But Hellman is no longer with us, and I continue to harbor the hope that I might live long enough to see her estate give permission to use her book with revisions — and of course that the revisions will be well done.

In the meantime, I think this is a terrific and enjoyable production and well worth seeing. This version of the libretto is awkward in a lot of ways, but it’s serviceable. The performances are excellent. And of course the score is brilliant, both musically and lyrically. Very good stuff.

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Indian Ink at A.C.T.

Dave and I saw Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink in a new production at A.C.T. this week. Good production of a good play, part satirical comedy and part historical romance.

My only serious problem with the production was that the pacing gets draggy here and there, particularly in the second act. A certain deliberateness in the pacing is more of a necessity than a problem, as the Geary is a very big, echoey theater, and dialogue can be hard to catch if taken at a pace that would be normal in a smaller theater; and then on top of that many of the characters speak in Indian accents that make the words harder to catch. But at times the pacing slows down even more than that, presumably for the emotional effect, and, for my taste anyway, there are a few too many of those times and they go on a bit too long.

The acting is terrific all around — especially, I thought, Brenda Meany as a British poet visiting India in the 1930s, Firdous Bamji as the Indian artist who paints her portrait while she is there, and Anthony Fusco as the nerdy modern-day academic who is looking — a lot too hard and a bit too literally — for evidence of a love affair between the two of them.

My only serious problem with the play is that it’s so similar to Arcadia in so many ways. Arcadia is such a striking and powerful play that Indian Ink feels a bit pale by comparison, and it’s hard not to compare given how much the two plays have in common. (Both plays tell two stories, one in the past and one in the present; in both, the present story concerns a comically stuffy academic who is researching the past story, so that we can see the conclusions that the academic is reaching — often laughably wrong — right alongside the past events themselves; in both plays, past and present share the stage at times; and in both plays an important part of the setting is a single table that is used in both past and present stories, eventually coming to hold props from both stories at the same time. Some of the correspondences are even fairly specific: In both plays, for example, a photograph of a painting that is in some way misidentified, and which appears on the dust jacket of an academic biography, becomes a significant clue in the historical puzzle. Perhaps there is a comedy-romance to be written someday in which a professor of theater history tries to untangle the exact relationship between the two plays, leading perhaps to a climactic scene in which both plays are rehearsed, though two years apart, on the same stage at the same time.)

Still, Indian Ink is a lovely play in its own right with a lot of beauty and a lot of juice in it. The relationship between the poet and the painter, as they get to know each other and share their differing views on art, is terrific comedy of manners and very endearing at the same time.

Stoppard has revised the ending, I understand; though Dave and I also saw the 1999 production, I don’t remember much about it (that was the year of my brain surgery, and my memories of things in the six or seven months before the surgery are very muddled), and I can’t find our paperback copy of the play, so I can’t yet compare the two endings. I did feel that the new ending was a little too long and drawn out, giving the audience the strong feeling two or three times that this is going to be the final scene, only then it isn’t. This may be a problem as much with the pace slackening, though, as with the construction of the ending; I’d need to see it another time or two to decide what I think about it.

The set, costumes, and lighting are stunning, simple but full of deep, rich colors; you can see photos from the production here.

Pygmalion at CalShakes

Last week, Dave and I saw Pygmalion at California Shakespeare Theater. It’s a wonderful production.

What was so remarkable to us is that we’ve both seen the play several times, including a very good small production at Butterfield 8 less than a year ago (I also saw Peter O’Toole and Amanda Plummer on Broadway back in the 1980s), and we have seen the movie with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller several times, and then of course we have also seen My Fair Lady both on stage and on screen a few times; and yet in this new production there were a lot of new discoveries for us along the way, especially in the second half.

Anthony Fusco’s Higgins is freshly thought out, it isn’t much at all like Howard’s or Harrison’s or O’Toole’s, and yet it’s a completely convincing characterization that, for me anyway, held a number of new insights into the character and his part in the story. Same with Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle: she never once seemed in any way to be in the shadow of Wendy Hiller or Julie Andrews or anyone else, but gives a thoroughly fresh interpretation of the role that works well, is completely in keeping with the play, and yet frequently had me reacting with surprise to some new reading she gave to a line or new shade of color she gave to a moment. Wonderful stuff.

The whole cast is terrific. And James Carpenter just about stops the show twice with his two brilliant scenes as Alfred Doolittle. Jonathan Moscone’s stage direction is fresh and inventive, and entirely in keeping with Shaw’s intentions. (He does fiddle with the text of the play a bit, trimming some scenes and making use of a few things from Shaw’s screenplay for the movie; it works well.) Shaw’s famously unresolved ending, which neither the movie nor the musical saw fit to follow, works beautifully here — after the Butterfield 8 production, I was saying to friends that it was the first time I’d seen a production that followed Shaw’s ending and made it feel like the perfectly right and inevitable ending to the story; this production now makes two times I have seen this happen.

One more week. We’d love to get back for one more look, but I don’t think it’s in either our schedule or our budget. I highly recommend this production. Yum yum yum.

Theater Rhino’s The Habit of Art

Dave and I saw an early preview of Theater Rhinoceros’s production of The Habit of Art at the Eureka Theater last Friday evening.

This is a fairly recent comedy by Alan Bennett, about an imagined meeting between Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden late in their lives. Auden is living in semi-retirement at Oxford; he’s bored and feeling like a has-been, and he’s eager to find something new and exciting to work on, even if it’s dangerous; Britten, on the other hand, is still busy and much sought after, and he has such a project — he’s starting work on an opera based on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice — but he’s skittish about the subject matter, a man in late middle age who develops an obsession with an underage boy he sees at a hotel while vacationing in Venice. Britten fears the public might turn on him, and he wants to make the boy older, closer to adulthood, and to present the older man’s attraction as one of chaste appreciation of classical beauty. (Britten is a homosexual and a teacher of boy singers; he feels an infatuation for some of his underage students himself, and his behavior with some of them — not overtly sexual but not entirely innocent either — has already led to private gossip, though never a public scandal; so the very thing that draws him toward the subject matter also cuts uncomfortably close to home.) Auden urges Britten to be honest about both the boy’s age and the sexual element in the attraction. Auden would love to write the libretto; Britten has already chosen to work with a writer who is much less talented but will give him the less dangerous, more comfortable libretto that he wants.

Except that it’s more complicated than that, because The Habit of Art is really about a rehearsal of a play about this imagined meeting, so there are layers of reality that interrupt each other, with the actors breaking character frequently to argue with the playwright or to complain about the director’s choices or to ask the stage manager where they’re supposed to be standing now.

Dave and I saw this production at Z Space a couple of months ago and enjoyed it a lot; we’d meant to go back for a second look and weren’t able to get around to it, so we were very happy to see that it’s getting another month or so of performances at the Eureka Theater. The acting is really terrific. The play itself is very funny, some of it in a very silly, farcical way, some of it affectionately satirizing the foibles and weaknesses of artists; and yet at the same time it’s a sort of rambling meditation on how to make art when you are past the years of your greatest glory but you still have the habit. When you’re much venerated for what you’re already done, working in your own shadow, do you repeat what has worked well for you in the past, or attempt something that’s exciting and new but dicey and that could fail very badly, maybe not just embarrassing you but even damaging your reputation? The theme echoes and re-echoes in subtle ways through all the various levels — the play-within-a-play, the actors’ complaints about the writing, the playwright’s complaints about the direction, the stage manager’s attempts to soothe everyone and keep the rehearsal on track.

It’s a dense, thoughtful, complex, and very funny play. If you’re a fan of plays by Tom Stoppand and Caryl Churchill, you’ll probably like this, too. If you’re on a tight budget like us, discounted tickets are available through Goldstar.

The Orphan of Zhao at A.C.T.

Dave and I saw the American Conservatory Theatre production of The Orphan of Zhao over the weekend. We both found it a bit disappointing. Pleasant, very well acted, attractively staged, but not really compelling or deeply moving.

For one thing — despite an essay in the program that chides earlier Western translations for taking considerable liberties with the original — this version seemed to us to lack much of a feeling of the culture of China a thousand years ago, often giving the characters motivations and concerns that might be understandable to a modern Western audience but which seemed very much out of character with how people in that time and place thought about themselves and about their relationship with the society around them.

Now, I’m certainly well aware that Chinese culture — even modern Chinese culture, let alone the vast cultural history — is confusing and bewildering to most Americans. And I’m not opposed to updating or reinterpreting an old story to make it more accessible or relevant to a modern audience, God knows. But nothing about the production suggests that this is intended as an updating or a reinterpretation. What’s more, this approach didn’t actually seem to help the audience understand why the characters were making the choices they were making, to judge by the number of times somebody’s decision to commit suicide or to slay another person drew some uneasy laughter from the audience.

At intermission, Dave was giving the play more of a break than I was — he’s first-generation Chinese-American and knows the old story, and I think he really wanted the production to work for him. But by the end of the play, he too was very frustrated, feeling that too many things weren’t ringing true and that the production completely missed, at least for him, what the old story is about from a Chinese point of view.

Another thing that bothered us (and in this case especially me): The play is clearly trying to be poetic, and yet the lyrical, reflective sections didn’t seem to me to work well. Maybe the poetic parts of the play read better on the page, I don’t know, but when spoken or sung from the stage most of them came across as weak and unclear. The plainer and more straightforwardly dramatic portions worked far better and had much more strength, I thought.

All that said, the cast — led by B. D. Wong as the country doctor who saves the orphan and Sab Shimono as an elderly sage who helps him, both at terrible sacrifice to themselves — is terrific, and the production is attractive. Not a bad evening of theater at all, just not a very emotionally engaging one, at least for us.

A Comedy of Errors at CalShakes

Dave and I saw the first preview of A Comedy of Errors at California Shakespeare Theater last night. It’s a fun, lively, colorful production with a lot of clowning and slapstick. The standout performance for me was from Adrian Danzig, who according to his bio is not merely a professional clown but the artistic director of an entire clown theater company based in Chicago and how cool is that? He gets a real workout playing both Antipholuses, and he carries it off with flair, energy, and occasional bursts of gymnastics. Danny Scheie similarly plays both Dromios; a little of his shtick usually goes a long way for me, and there’s a double helping of it here, but this is the sort of silly farce where it fits in and works, and I enjoyed his performance.

Having each pair of identical twins played by one actor is a very appealing idea, at least until you get to the scenes where they have to appear together, and then it isn’t so much any more; the actors don’t really overcome the clumsiness of the scenes in which they are playing opposite themselves, but they do make the most of their double roles the rest of the time.

Seven actors play all the roles, and they make a lively ensemble. Most of their bios include the words clown and/or circus somewhere in their credits, it’s that kind of production. I thought Patty Gallagher was especially deft and funny switching back and forth between playing a courtesan and an abbess, but really they’re all great fun to watch.

Really, the only real drawback to the production is that, you know, it’s still A Comedy of Errors, which it seems to me nobody really needs to see more than once in a lifetime, and I think this is my third production, plus a couple of productions of The Boys from Syracuse along the way as well. I suppose if you’re going to call yourself a Shakespeare festival, you’re taking on the obligation to work your way through the whole book of plays sooner or later, no matter how slight some of them are, and they don’t get much slighter than this. But I can’t help wondering if there aren’t there some other amusing but flimsy Elizabethan farces that we could all agree to just pretend to attribute to Shakespeare, just for variety.