BWW Review: CANDIDE at Des Moines Metro Opera: A Beautiful Kaleidoscope That Makes the Best of all Possible Shows
Some people think everything happens in life for a reason. Others choose to relish all the great parts of life while others drown in the despair of the horrible things that happen in the world. Whatever your philosophy on life is, one thing you would never expect is to see that philosophy come to life on stage, and then be able to laugh at it. That's the beauty of Leonard Bernstein's Candide. It doesn't poke fun at our views, it asks us to take a deeper look at them. It's when we take a deeper look we can see the humor of it. That's what makes Candide the best of all possible shows to see at the present time. Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO) opened their most recent production of Candide on June 29. The brightly colored sets and costumes as well as the extremely talented cast truly make this the best of all possible productions.
At the beginning of the show we find Candide, who lives at the house of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronck, has fallen in love with Cunegonde, the Baron's daughter. The only issue is Candide is poor and Cunegonde is rich and aristocratic. When they are caught performing "experiments," Candide is kicked out of the Baron's house. With no money, Candide is tricked into joining the Bulgar army. When the battle is fought at the Baron's house he believes Cunegonde and her family to be dead. So he sets off on a journey that takes him around to see different calamities all over the world. This forces him to take a look and see if everything truly happens to make this the best of all possible worlds or if there is any reason at all. As the show continues on he finds out Cunegonde is alive but their paths keep separating them. Do they end up together in the end? You will have to see the show to find that out.
The difficulty with staging a production of Candide, is that it takes the audience on a journey to locations all around the world and looks at the different philosophies people have. In order to pull this off, you need to have a director with a strong vision, as well as the ability to weave all aspects of the production together. In the stage notes given in the program by stage director Michael Shell, he tells that while he was familiar with the music of Candide, this was the first time he fully entered the kaleidoscope of Candid. Kaleidoscope is a fitting concept for this production and can be seen through every aspect. It gives the designers a direction to take their design, but it also gives the director room to do a unique staging of the show. Part of the fun with this show was seeing how each place on the journey was going to be staged. To me as an audience member it was like I was looking into the kaleidoscope and turning it ever so slightly and while there are elements I see that are familiar, it has become a beautiful new picture.
The scenic design by Steven C. Kemp is crucial to making this production concept of a kaleidoscope work. The set became its own character in the show. The set starts with a bare stage with only a wooden floor seen as the audience enters. As the curtain rises on the show we see Westphalia illustrated with the color white. As we continue in the show to each location a new color is introduced to that location. What's unique is that as we continue to each location, something stays on stage. So something white stays on stage the full show as other pieces are brought on. Some pieces were large pieces, others were small, but each color was impactful and reminded you of what Candide has seen and learned on his journey. What surprises me the most is that I could still tell you some of the colors and what region of the world they represented. To me that speaks volumes to the set design
While the set brings and keeps each color, the elegant costumes, beautifully designed by Linda Pisano, explores each color individually. The costumes for each scene take the color associated with the area and weave it into the costume. The only exception is the main characters, as some of their colors stay the same from scene to scene. I found that the costumes of the main characters were a thread that kept the overall costume design cohesive. Another nice touch the costumes had is that the color in the costumes was never introduced in the same way. It played into the idea that Candide was traveling around the world. As he traveled he would see the different types of clothing or fashion each location had. The most impactful moment for me with the costumes was when costumes in each of the colors we had seen throughout the evening came onstage for "Make Our Garden Grow." It was a special moment where the set and costumes combined truly looked as though you were looking into a kaleidoscope. It was a great illustration of how we, the people of the world, may all have different views and philosophies, but when we come together we can do beautiful and amazing things. It was moving and awe inspiring. I doubt there was a dry eye in the house.
While Candide had amazing sets and costumes, it wouldn't be a production without an equally amazing cast to support these technical elements. This cast had a large chorus, as well as 14 principle characters. 6 of the principals were making their mainstage debuts with DMMO. While it would be easy to go on at length about each of the principle cast members, I'm going to narrow it down to a few performances that stood out the most to me.
One of my favorite songs to come from Candide is the song "Glitter and Be Gay." When the orchestra hits the first note, you know the next 5-6 minutes are going to show off the range the actress has both as an actor and singer. In this production Cunegonde was played by Deanne Breiwick. What I loved about her performance was how she showed the conflicting emotions her character was going through. Through the staging of this song and her interpretation of the character, we get to see this story unfold of her debating on what meaning her life has had to this point. One half of the stage was her facing the reality that she no longer has the money and earthly things that she has grown to love. On this side of the stage was Voltaire which played with the idea that Cunegonde may be learning that maybe jewels and money don't give her the life she necessarily wants. On the other side of the stage is the old woman with jewels and money that Cunegonde gets from some not so innocent acts. It is fun for the audience to get to see her come to terms with where her life is now, and see the mask the jewels and money are for Cunegonde to cover how she really feels.
The show has a contrast to Breiwick's Cunegonde with Jonathan Johnson in the title role of Candide. Jonathan does an amazing job taking the audience on the emotional roller-coaster Candide goes through. I appreciated that in his performance while the music may have made what he was singing seem joyful, he was able to play the comedy while still showing the weight of what was going on in the show. This brought so much heart to the show that when it came to the finale of the show for "Make Our Garden Grow," you could feel his character saying this is what I believe, verses here is what I've been told to believe. This move of strength from him beautifully shows the audience why the other characters in the show agree to join him in his new philosophy of making the best with what he has.
There is an additional performance that felt brought a tremendous amount of humor to the evening. Jill Grove as Old Lady did a great job of bringing her over the top characters to life. I enjoyed her reactions at the top of the show when she tried to come on stage and Voltaire kept kicking her off the stage. She came in stronger each time and her entrances made the audience laugh even harder each time. I also enjoyed how when she delivered her lines she rolled her r's in an over the top fashion.
This production was one I could watch over and over again. Each moment of the show required the sets, costumes, and actors to be at their best. The final picture of the we see on stage, is a beautiful reminder of what our world can be. While we all have our own beliefs, when we come together, we make something beautiful. Tickets are on sale for DMMO's production of Candide, but performances of this beautiful show are selling out quickly. To find out more on this production or to buy tickets visit http://desmoinesmetroopera.org/productions/candide/