Quantum Theater reinvents classic operetta

Candide and Cunegonde find each other once again and sing in their naive love. (credit: Courtesy of Heather Mull ) Candide and Cunegonde find each other once again and sing in their naive love. (credit: Courtesy of Heather Mull ) Candide is unfairly flogged for listening to a man deemed a heretic. (credit: Courtesy of Heather Mull ) Candide is unfairly flogged for listening to a man deemed a heretic. (credit: Courtesy of Heather Mull )

It took 250 years of history and five different writers to bring Candide to Pittsburgh’s former Don Allen Auto City. Last Thursday night, Quantum Theater presented the first of many performances of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, as adapted from Hugh Wheeler’s adaptation of Voltaire’s original work.

The story follows the titular character (played by John Wascavage) as he is unwittingly pulled around the world, always in search of Cunegonde (played by Carnegie Mellon graduate Nicole Kaplan) — both the love of his life and his cousin.

The Don Allen Auto City locale presented a few challenges to the ensemble, but also offered the theater group a unique opportunity to bring in the setting in amusing ways. For example, when Cunegonde is holding what is intended to be a rose, she is instead clutching a bouquet of cardboard air fresheners.

Before the show began, the audience — wrapped around three sides of a small square stage — awaited the cast and tried to ignore the pervasive scents of oil and grease. Meanwhile, the eight-member pit (including conductor Andres Cladera) sat in the recessed center of the stage dressed as mechanics.

One of the best features of the show was that the pit was more or less forced to be a part of the show. “There’s no pretending the pit is not there,” Cladera said. At one point, one of the characters, called the Jew, took hold of the violinist’s bow and brandished it as a sword.

When the performance began, the cast entered, all dressed in white, and sat on the varied stools and chairs on stage, clearly noting that they were being observed by an audience. Despite the story’s 1759 origin, they soon brought out iPods and cell phones, which elicited some small laughter from the audience.

Very quickly, the performance proved to provide much more humor throughout the show. As Cunegonde prayed for the return of Candide — whom her family cast out because he was the bastard son of the sister of Cunegonde’s father but intended to marry Cunegonde — Kaplan comically thrust her hips and lamented the ravages of life.

In the first song, Wascavage seemed a weak singer. He did not carry his part and faded into the rest of the ensemble. However, as the show went on, he seemed to find his voice, finally shining in “Make Our Garden Grow” — the show’s finale.

Kaplan, on the other hand, proved to be a powerful singer and showcased her considerable vocal range and emotional breadth in “Glitter and Be Gay.” While Wascavage’s expressions were exaggerated and unrealistic, Kaplan provided a much more pitiable Cunegonde.

An unexpected star of the show came out of Laurie Klatscher as the Old Lady. For “Easily Assimilated,” the character’s breakout song, Klatscher held her character’s Polish accent with surprising ease. As the show went on, Klatscher nearly stole the show with her intense characterization and powerful expression.

Klatscher had begun the show as a small member of the ensemble cast, where most of the cast members spent the performance except in the few places when they took on a character. In fact, director Karla Boos took advantage of the small cast by reintroducing characters like Maximillian and Paquette after they had already died — more than once.

Jeffrey Gross, who played parts from a priest to a pygmy native, said that this was a much different version of Candide from the one he had been familiar with — a more traditional adaptation of Voltaire’s story. “Some of my favorite numbers aren’t in this,” he said, “but it was a great time.”

Indeed, the show was a great time and a great laugh. Some very addictive songs caught the audience by surprise — I walked away singing “Tus labios ruby/Dos rosas que se abren a mí” for hours after seeing the show — and some fantastic moments made viewers burst out in laughter.

In spite of a few weaker moments — which will likely work themselves out in time — Candide was definitely a production worth paying for.