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West Bay Wanderer

Hand Jive: Candide (Rick Dougherty, left) and Pangloss (Rick Williams) observe the exercise habits of Dunegonde (Marnie Breckenridge) in West Bay Opera's production of "Candide."

Bernstein's 'Candide' tracks man's mistakes in tuneful satire

By Philip Collins

LOOK ... up on the stage, it's a farce; no, it's a musical; sorry, it's an opera with a tongue in its cheek--it's Candide; all of the above and then some. West Bay Opera has invested Leonard Bernstein's and Lillian Hellman's tuneful, satiric and philosophical Broadway flop with imaginative trimmings and sound musical support--for the most part.

Candide is stocked with entertainment value, and stage director Jonathon Field ups the ante at every opportunity with well-oiled sight gags and clever applications of computer-generated imagery; for once, slide sequences efficiently accomplish scenic mobility. Through resourceful manipulations of maps and etchings, the projections facilitate the story's odyssey in ways that often spoof conventional visual-aid methods. The diorama take-off accompanying Candide's hike from the castle is a real hoot.

Hellman's book--aided by the wicked lyrics of Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim and John LaTouche--at times falls short of its literary aims and, more importantly, Bernstein's exalted tunesmithing. This sometimes smart and often silly satire about human nature's inexorable destructive streak wanders structurally with as little sense of direction as Candide himself displays on the road of life. But merrily we tag along as Bernstein's arresting melodies placate our reservations over plot disorders.

West Bay Opera's Candide has a lot going for it. Despite the chorus' recurrent shortcomings, some faulty casting, assorted cuts and questionable orchestrations, Field keeps things moving, and there are numerous contributions of outstanding merit.

Four new faces to the company's roster--soprano Marnie Breckenridge (Cunegonde); baritone Rick Williams (Voltaire, Pangloss, Pasha and Sage); mezzo-soprano Marla Kavanaugh (Paquette); contralto Anne Kiley (Old Lady and Baroness)--bring welcome voices and fill out the show's central roles with fetching presence.

In the title role, however, Rick Dougherty is not quite so beguiling. The radiant tenor writing that Bernstein lavished upon Candide in "Make Our Garden Grow," "The Best of All Possible Worlds" and other songs was lamentably disguised in Dougherty's renderings. In the duet "Oh, Happy We," between Dougherty and Breckenridge (his romantic opposite), divergences of projection and tone were a constant distraction. Likewise, their "Yoo, hoo" refrains during reunification scenes were glaringly lopsided.

Breckenridge makes a sparkling Cunegonde. As the show's central female and object of Candide's affections, Breckenridge's contributions prove indispensable to the production's musical high points. In her prize number, "Glitter and Be Gay," Breckenridge was electric, charging into the song's stylistic variations and virtuosities with guileless aplomb.

Anne Kiley's West Bay Opera debut is noteworthy if only for her performance as the Old Lady, which includes a hearty rendition of "Quiet"--a Gypsy-flavored number wherein she recounts past travesties. In addition to her robust theatricality, Kiley endows the song with fine singing and shaded timbres, adding a seductive edge to the number's vulgar nature.

During the course of the evening, Williams moves in and out of various aforementioned hats with a chameleon's ease. Although Williams' main identity is primarily that of host and narrator Voltaire, his singing contributions are equally enjoyable.

Mara Kavanaugh is as coquettish as a fallen debutante in her performance as Paquette, the servant girl. True to her supporting role in the work, Kavanaugh energizes scenes through nimble ensemble rapport, and her singing assignments, though seldom highlighted, are deliciously served.

An impressively staffed chamber ensemble of 15 under the direction of David Sloss maneuvers credibly through an awkward, even ragtag, scoring that resorts to piano and synthesizer for much of its textural weight as well as for the voicing of various absentee solo parts. Synthetic attempts at harp on opening night had all the allure of an attacking mosquito.

Field's thoughtful staging keeps wit at a premium, negotiating the work's jagged construction with puns and wacky distractions. With the aid of visually stunning props, Friday's performance gracefully vaulted Candide's final credibility gap; moving from the cave of "The Wisest Man in the World" (humor the width of Mel Brooks) to the virtuous, hymnlike company finale, "Make Our Garden Grow," almost seamlessly.

"Make Our Garden Grow" is certainly a gorgeous song, well deserving of its placement as denouement, but perhaps for another show. The song's climbing melodic designs beautifully invoke the garden metaphor, but its earnestness is a hard sell in the wake of so much cynicism and so little character development. But up to that point, Candide is an enthralling romp, an unsanctioned marriage of myriad laughs and lovely lyricism.

Candide plays Friday­Saturday at 8:15pm and Sunday at 2pm through June 2 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $29. (415/424-9999)

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From the May 30-June 5, 1996 issue of Metro

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