In the 1950s, playwright Lillian Hellman considered writing a stage version of Voltaire's satire Candide, the kind of stuff suited to the acerbic creator of The Little Foxes. Instead, she and Leonard Bernstein turned it into an operetta in which he brilliantly spoofed the genre's musical style, perfect for a piece about the 18th century, while creating gorgeous melodies and marvelous vocal lines bubbling with vitality, charm and color.
A legend was born, despite box-office disaster, often blamed on Hellman's heavy-handed script. Subsequent revisions have tried to make it work better. Playwright Hugh Wheeler's funnier and cleverer total re-working, from 1974, became a big hit.
That version has been produced and directed by Quantum Theatre's Karla Boos, impressively bringing out the magnificence of Bernstein's score. Credit music director Andres Cladera for making it sparkle and soar even though he arranged it for only seven players. And two marvelous singing actors play the principal roles of Candide and Cunegonde: John Wascavage and Nicole Kaplan, both from Pittsburgh. Eight other supporting actors display vocal talent to match.
Boos stages this in the body shop of the demised Don Allen Auto City, insightfully calling attention to a grimy microcosm where things which fall apart can come back to life. Moreover, she amusingly decorates stage business with auto accessories, even incorporating a gleaming 1976 Cadillac El Dorado to suggest the operetta's so-named South American paradise.
Yet in Candide, it always remains a problem to get everything right. Richard Wilbur's lyrics and Wheeler's book for the satire bite deep. And broad. The essence remains comic-book-like storytelling, calling for something wild, yet pointed. And Boos, despite inventive staging, hasn't found that essence, a shortfall most lamentably embodied in Jeffrey R. Howell's amiable, nearly colorless interpretations of both the narrator (personified as "Voltaire") and the potentially sleazy and foolish Dr. Pangloss.
Wascavage evokes a superb image of the bewildered, sweet and innocent Candide. And though Kaplan doesn't get to the heart of Cunegonde's pretensions, when she launches into that tour de force "Glitter and Be Gay," she'll flatten you to the floor.
Among other vocal joys, consider Point Park grad Taavon Gamble as the self-admiring Maximillian, who in the second act gets mistaken for an attractive girl, and renders that part with a wonderful high voice.
Listen and be amazed and delighted. You may not laugh as often as you might, but you'll come away reminded of Bernstein's brilliance. Boos, Cladera and the cast make that part shine.
Candide continues through Nov. 22. Former Don Allen Auto City, 5135 Baum Blvd., Bloomfield. 412-394-3353 or www.quantumtheatre.com