Promoted as a “Satire of Innocence, Optimism and the Unexpected Lessons of Life,” Cabrillo Stage’s adaptation of Voltaire’s “Candide” is a glorious conglomeration of the very best that local theater has to offer. Incredibly funny, fast-paced and thoroughly engaging, the comical operetta grips the audience’s attention from the opening scene, with a fantastical set that provides theatergoers with a conundrum reminiscent of a Cirque de Soleil production: Where does one look first? Period costumes lend themselves to the authenticity of the show, and the sheer talent of the cast is a glory to behold.
With 28 cast members, the energy is electrifying as the story unfolds. Candide, a young man living a sheltered life in the German town of Westphalia, is being indoctrinated by his tutor, Doctor Pangloss, to believe in philosophical optimism: the idea that “all is for the best in this best of all worlds.” Played by Michael Stahl, Candide’s buoyant optimism and naiveté are on display throughout the performance, as he finds love, loss, heartache and redemption in his travels around Europe and Latin America. He is expelled from home, dragged into the Bulgarian army, brought before the Spanish Inquisition, swindled out of a fortune, shipwrecked on a desert isle and separated time and again from his true love, Cunégonde, played effortlessly by Lori Schulman. She, too, endures a barrage of misfortunes, including sale into prostitution, forced marriage to an exorbitantly wealthy man, and slavery.
Stahl’s operatic voice lifts the production from homespun to the divine as he conveys his feelings in songs written by the great Leonard Bernstein. Not to be outdone, the beautiful and exuberant Schulman suffuses her portrayal of Cunégonde with a complete life force. With bouncing blond curls and the voice of an angel, Schulman bursts from scene to scene as she experiences the highs of privilege and the lows of physical torment.
As the literal “Old Lady,” Lizz Hodgin Weihrauch is stellar in her role, marrying the wisdom of age with the optimism of a long-departed youth. Weihrauch’s voice is as ethereal as her counterparts’, vaulting her performance into one that is achingly stirring and memorable.
The roles of Voltaire, Dr. Pangloss and Sage are played deftly by Curt Denham, whose soaring voice, unique physicality and ability to morph between characters is spell-binding.
The vast talent on stage is nearly outshined by the wit and hilarity of the story and its wild staging. From the audience’s voyeurism, as Candide and Cunégonde practice their first moment of intimacy to the massive earthquake that shakes the city of Lisbon and leaves hundreds dead, each scene is completely enthralling and elicits hearty rounds of laughter from the audience. (One would not believe that an earthquake could be funny, but this one is hilarious.) Every song and dance number is deftly choreographed and replete with strong, vibrant voices that complement the score of the production. The lighting and set design are as professionally done as a Broadway play, and when combined with the music and talent, lead one to believe they might see the same presentation on The Great White Way. Cabrillo College Director of Vocal Music, Cheryl Anderson, hits all the right notes as the musical director, and the score is perfectly delivered.
This incredible production is a credit to director and choreographer Gary John La Rosa, whose adept direction addresses hard-to-swallow themes of the operetta, such as prostitution and religious blasphemy, while bringing a joyful, playful element to the story. Add in a pair of singing sheep, a little cross-dressing and a hanging-gone-wrong, and you’re in for an evening of splendid talent and fun. And as for the finalé—Bernstein’s masterpiece “Make Our Garden Grow” sung by Candide and Cunégonde —it is simply not to be missed.
There are not a lot of “musts” in life, but seeing the Cabrillo Theater presentation of “Candide” is one of them. It’s just that good.
“Candide” plays at Cabrillo College’s Crocker Theater, 6500 Lower Perimeter Road, Aptos. The show runs thru Aug. 14, with performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm, and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Tickets are $45-50 for adults, $40-45 for seniors, and $20 for children 12 and under, and are available at cabrillostage.com.