What in this best of all possible worlds is the best of all possible philosophical satires set to the best of all possible music? Why Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, based on 18th century classic by Voltaire, bien sûr. This past weekend, the Lamplighters opened Candide in the best of all possible possibles at Yerba Buena, opening a three-week tour of the Bay Area.

Baker Peeples (Narrator) © David Allen
Baker Peeples (Narrator)
© David Allen

Once again, The Lamplighters have put together another of their alluring productions. With the band on stage, platforms that the players wind over and through in their global peregrinations, against a stunningly simple backdrop of a cloud-laced vivid sky, soloists and chorus deliver a lively interpretation that falls somewhere between a concert version and a fully staged one.

Rather than set changes, different locales and situations are shown by costuming the chorus, who variously appear garbed as locals, including Spanish townsfolk, citizens of Portugal, Paraguayan slave women, Venetian women, etc. It’s a clever and effective way to solve the dilemma of 16 scenes set in different locales.

Baker Peeples is the narrator Voltaire and the conductor, putting in a solid performance as both. And tenor Samuel Faustine was a remarkably innocent-looking Candide, with a sweet high tenor to match. In the performance I attended Amy Foote was his Cunegonde, the luxury-loving girl-next-door, if you happen to live next to a bordello. Foote was splendid, as ditsy as her curly coiffure and she scaled the treacherous ups and downs of the aria “Glitter and be gay” with speed and assurance. The part is double cast with Jennifer Ashworth.

Samuel Faustine (Candide) © Lucas Buxman
Samuel Faustine (Candide)
© Lucas Buxman

Rick Williams sings the lusty Dr Pangloss, and the serving girl Paquette, one of the many objects of his affection, was sung by Michelle Shroeder. The Old Lady was wonderfully sung by Deborah Rosengaus, a role double cast with Cary Rosko. Phil Wong was in the non-singing role of Candide’s buddy Cacambo. Everyone was up on their game, sharing that chemical magic that makes theater so compelling.

The satirical novel Candide was Voltaire’s answer to Leibniz’s metaphysical treatise that promoted an optimistic outlook to life: all must be for the best because God is a benevolent deity. In a Europe beset by the Seven Year’s War and with news of the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, one of the deadliest in history with an estimated death toll in Lisbon of over 10,000 inhabitants, Voltaire found the theological rationalisations of the time insupportable. What possible good, he asked, could be found in such catastrophes?

Deborah Rosengaus (The Old Lady) and Amy Foote (Cunegonde) © Lucas Buxman
Deborah Rosengaus (The Old Lady) and Amy Foote (Cunegonde)
© Lucas Buxman

Or as the fresh-faced Candide asks his tutor, the optimistic Dr. Pangloss: “What about snakes? … What about war?” Pangloss’ convoluted justifications are right up there with those of senators denying global warming.

The Bernstein operetta is a sassy summation of Voltaire’s classic. Begun with author Lillian Hellman’s libretto, the operetta premiered in 1956, but has undergone several revivals and revisions by numerous writers. It does Voltaire proud, among other things allowing Candide to accidentally (and innocently) bump off a number of corrupt clergy.

And finally, the sheep! They were beyond endearing. Go for the sheep alone.