`Candide' is good news


April 24, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds," preaches Dr. Pangloss, the fictitious philosopher in Voltaire's 1758 satirical novel, "Candide." Leonard Bernstein's 1956 musical adaptation, however, has not always been considered the best of all possible musicals.

The show has had a bumpy Broadway history. The original production closed after only 73 performances. A 1973 environmental staging met with considerably more success, but the 1997 revival also shuttered prematurely.

Still, "Candide" has long been this critic's favorite Bernstein musical. My partiality is due not only to the composer's magnificent score, with its references to everything from Gounod to Gilbert and Sullivan, but also to the whimsical book (rewritten by Hugh Wheeler after Lillian Hellman's unsuccessful 1956 effort) and Richard Wilbur's lyrics (additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and John LaTouche).

The show is rarely performed by little theaters.

Presumably they're scared off by the combination of Bernstein's demanding score and Voltaire's numerous settings, which span the globe from Cartagena to Constantinople. But such potential obstacles seem to appeal to director/choreographer Todd Pearthree, whose production at Theatre Hopkins is the latest impressive offering in what's stacking up to be one of that theater's most impressive seasons.

The production's cartoon quality is among its most delightful aspects. Candide is banished from his native Westphalia and separated from his beloved Cungeonde. Then, the plot takes on a comic-book quality: The pair suffers through disaster after disaster in a valiant attempt to be reunited and live happily ever after.

In Pearthree's interpretation, an erupting volcano is depicted by a swinging light fixture and, at the height of the Inquisition, the cheery "Auto-da-fe" production number is performed by a chorus brandishing bloody amputated body parts.

The silliness of these hokey effects reflects Voltaire's basic point: the ridiculousness inherent in the type of Pollyanna philosophies that contend that good comes out of even the most gruesome catastrophes.

Pearthree's production is well cast. Although Jane E. Brown's vocally nimble Cungeonde out- sings Tom Burns' Candide, Burns' acting captures the deluded boy's naive, bright-eyed manner. Braxton Peters imbues his portrayal of the youths' teacher, Dr. Pangloss, with just the right touch of the winking roue, and Liz Boyer and Holly Pasciullo are delightful in their respective roles of the mysterious Old Lady and the saucy but resourceful maid Paquette.

The musical's opening song proclaims: "Life is happiness indeed." So is this production.

Theatre Hopkins performs in the Merrick Barn on the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2: 15 p.m. Sundays, through May 21. Tickets are $10 and $12. Call 410-516-7159.

Playwrights festival

Eight productions by six area theater companies will make up this summer's 19th annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Chosen from 54 entries, the roster of plays includes scripts by four festival veterans -- Mark Scharf, John W. Teahan, Rosemary Frisino Toohey and Carol Weinberg. The prolific Scharf will have openings in Ellicott City and Baltimore the same night.

"We have some really powerful dramatic experiences in store for our audience, as well as a couple of extremely funny comedies," said Rodney Bonds, festival president.

Here's the lineup:

"Dusting Belgrade," by Rhonda Cooperstein. A writer goes to war-torn Kosovo to work on a book with his photographer daughter and search for a woman from his past. Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., July 6-23.

A double bill of one-acts: "Up on the Roof," by Sheilah Kleiman, a play about the life crises faced by an elderly man and a 12-year-old cancer patient, and "No Riders," by Scharf, a short drama about a teen-aged couple traveling cross-country. Director's Choice Theatre at Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City, July 7-23.

"Beltway Roulette," also by Scharf. An unhappily married woman searches for romance along the Washington beltway. Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., July 7-29.

"Juanita Bloom," also by Cooperstein. A patient takes charge of her life after being diagnosed with a serious illness. Uncommon Voices Theatre Company at Fell's Point Corner (second-floor theater), July 27-Aug. 13.

"Hungarian Trilogy," by PS Lorio. A comedy about a woman who lives vicariously through the patrons of her Chicago restaurant. Mobtown Players at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, 4701 N. Charles St., Aug. 4-20.

"Animal Instincts," by Toohey. A domestic drama about a dysfunctional farm family with a dark secret. Spotlighters, Aug. 4-26.

"Freedom Summer," by Weinberg. Narrated by Andrew Goodman, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1964, the play focuses a housewife in Queens, N.Y., who is deeply affected by the civil rights struggle. Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway, Aug. 11-27.

"Ancient Geeks," by Teahan. Three short comedies set in classical Greece: "Plato's Interview," "A Pair of Trojans" and "The Odyssey Re-Writes." Fell's Point Corner Theatre, Aug. 17-Sept. 3.

Subscriptions to the festival are $40 for six tickets, which can be used for any of the performances. Call 410-276-2153.

Writing workshop

A one-day playwriting workshop will be held from 9: 30 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 13 at Bethesda Arts, 2640 St. Paul St. It will be led by playwright Bill Harris, a creative writing professor at Michigan's Wayne State University. Participants interested in having selections from their plays read during the workshop are asked to call ahead. The workshop is also open to beginning writers. The fee is $75 ($55 for seniors and students) and includes continental breakfast and lunch. Call 410-467-9767.

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