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The best of all possible worlds: an opera in Broadway drag


Sex, war, lynching, cataclysmic disaster, inquisition, rape, lecherous priests and rabbis, prostitution, murder, transsexuality and greed in the "best of all possible worlds." No, it's not the next five minutes of CNN, it's the Opera Theatre of the Rockies' (OTR) boisterous production of Candide.

Based on the scathing novel of social and moral satire originally written by French philosopher Franois Marie Arouet de Voltaire in 1759, Candide was first adapted as an operetta by composer Leonard Bernstein, writer Lillian Hellman and lyricist and poet Richard Wilbur for the Broadway stage in 1956. The production flopped horribly, and many critics pointed the finger at Hellman for overindulging her post-McCarthyist wrath while killing off much of the story's inherent comedy.

Since then, the operetta has been rewritten and variously tampered with by everyone from Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim (who entirely jettisoned Hellman's book), to Michael Stewart and Sheldon Patinkin and Bernstein himself.

The OTR is presenting the most definitive version, Leonard Bernstein, John Maurceri and John Wells' "Scottish Opera" production of 1988, which reintroduced much of Voltaire's original humor and seriousness along with most of Bernstein's original score.

The story is a mock bildungsroman -- the bastard child Candide's (Dan Fosha) coming of age in a world where he is led to believe that everything is for the greater good and must find out the really long and hard way that it just ain't so.

Baritone Robert Tiffany plays the bawdy and conniving teacher Pangloss with perfect bellowing debauch. As his "Everything that is, is good" philosophical outlook warps the optimistic young Candide into the trance that carries him through the sins of the world, Tiffany morphs Pangloss' syphilitic character charismatically into each new rationalization with a veteran's panache.

The innocent lilt of Dan Fosha's voice along with his boyish face make Candide's plight all the more naively charming and contrapuntal to the production's overall cynical punch (as Voltaire would have wanted it).

Perhaps the high point of the production was Margaret Simpson's delivery of "Glitter and Be Gay." Perfectly capturing the pathos of luxurious boredom, Simpson swooned across the bed on center stage with the presence of Madonna doing "Like A Virgin," the comic timing of Sandra Bernhardt, and the voice of, well, not quite Maria Callas, but stunningly controlled nonetheless.

Also fabulous, of course, were the inimitable producer and founder of OTR, Martile Rowland (performing with her company for the first time), as the one-buttocked Old Lady, Spencer Neil as the pouty and fey Maximilian and Sarah Barber as the buxom and lusty Paquette.

Conductor Christopher Wilkins, thrilled to be back in Colorado Springs and to be working with Rowland and Director Steve LaCosse, led the orchestra and chorus through the production with the rare and infectious enthusiasm he brought to the Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra.

If there's anything remotely weak about the show, it's the set. Though it's bare design was obviously created to accommodate the huge chorus and the litany of settings, some kind of creative projections or even more stylized and abstracted design would have added greatly to the visual appeal.

It's hard to believe with all the work that went into Candide, it's only going to run for four days. So don't miss your chance to get fancy. This operetta, which might best be described as an opera in Broadway drag (no surprise: Bernstein wrote West Side Story), is the perfect aural elixir and comic remedy for these times of apocalyptic despond.

-- Noel Black


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