The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new production of Leonard Bernstein’s time-traveling satirical operetta Candide is a thumping-good evening of intellectual musical theater. Generally fast-paced and loaded with political and social satire, it comes to DC at just the right time in this over-hyped, whirlwind political year. Yet ironically, Mary Zimmerman’s new performing version of the show—based more closely on Voltaire’s eponymous 18th century satirical novella—differs considerably from what the composer probably had in mind.
Candide—the novella and the show—traces the adventures and peregrinations of its title character, a naïve youth who, until nearly the bitter end, truly believes the philosophy of his mentor, Dr. Pangloss. The good doctor opines that we’re living in the best of all possible worlds and that everything that happens simply happens for the best. In due course, however, Candide’s optimism is brought crashing down about him as he witnesses the horrors of war, greed, class hatred—and more greed.
Long famed for its popular music but frequently derided as an unstageable mess by critics who hated Lillian Hellman’s original book, Candide, languished after its unfortunate 1956 flop-premiere. There it pretty much stayed until Harold Prince revived it as a two-act operetta/Broadway show in 1974. With scintillating lyrics by the brilliant American poet Richard Wilbur and a much crisper book by Hugh Wheeler, this version replaced Hellman’s leaden didacticism, transforming the production into a funny, fast-paced, tunefest that was closer to what Bernstein had originally envisioned.
But Candide’s performance history continues to evolve. Over the years, an endless number of directors, lyricists, writers, producers, and composers have tinkered with the product to the point where it would take a book to cover the whole story. Adding to the confusion, Bernstein himself created a final final version of the work in 1988, two years before he died.
Leftist playwright Lillian Hellman actually approached Bernstein first on the topic of Candide. She proposed to write a new play, loosely based on Voltaire’s novella and hoped Bernstein would agree to contribute incidental music to the show.
Bernstein was intrigued but imagined Candide instead as a light, frothy operetta. Voltaire’s primary aim in writing his own Candide was to poke fun at doctrinaire optimists and philosophers, and the idle rich who trivialized their own lives while casually crushing those of others by means of war and religion. Bernstein thought it would be a great idea to adapt the Frenchman’s timeless material to the operetta format, the better to conceal a subtle political protest against the McCarthy era—Hellman’s initial notion as well—and persuaded the playwright to help him with this approach.
Unfortunately, Hellman never really relinquished her notion of Candide as a play with incidental music, and her dull, aimless book subverted in many ways Bernstein’s witty, sparkling score.
Hellman refused any involvement in what became Candide’s 1974 revival, allowing Prince et. al. to achieve success with the new and improved version. Since then, some flavor or another of Candide continues to survive, and it’s become a staple of the New York City Opera over the last couple of decades.
The Shakespeare Theatre’s current iteration is a bit like a trip back to the future. It’s really Mary Zimmerman’s Candide, not Leonard Bernstein’s. Bypassing Lillian Hellman’s initial ideological approach, Zimmerman goes back to Voltaire to pull back various plot elements that make the show a more coherent narrative. But in so doing, she once again relegates Bernstein’s music to the back seats. This Candide is once again a play with incidental music, not the other way round.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Zimmerman clearly has a better sense of balance with this material than Hellman ever did. Except for some tediousness in the second act, Ms. Zimmerman, as adaptor and director, generally keeps things moving at a good clip, fleshing out Voltaire’s somewhat two dimensional characters in a way that gets the audience more involved in the story’s outcome. She still retains Voltaire’s absurdist conceits—characters are killed off and then magically reappear later in the show—but somehow makes them seem weirdly natural.
Candide is still tough to stage due to its picaresque, episodic narrative, which moves from country to country about as quickly as we can surf the web today. Zimmerman chooses to address the show’s time-space problem by adapting production techniques employed in the 1974 version, which placed the show’s various actions all over the stage by means of pop-up platforms. In the current production, after an initial drawing room scene, Daniel Ostling’s set design places us in a wood-paneled box whose various walls and trap doors open, rise, and fall to reveal each new scene without the need for ponderous and time-consuming individual sets.
Whatever version of Candide we’re dealing with requires a lively cast of talented singer-actors to pull it off. Fortunately, this production is blessed with a cast that obviously loves the show and knows how to be real and absurd at the same time.
Youthful, good-looking Geoff Packard plays Candide as a credulous, wide-eyed bumpkin whose essential good nature does him in each and every time. He bears an uncanny resemblance to actor Owen Wilson who excels in similar roles. But in addition to his physical appeal and acting chops, Packard adds a fine, expressive voice that finds itself easily at home in Bernstein’s appealing yet difficult score.
As Candide’s love interest, Cunegonde, Lauren Molina proves an excellent foil. Pretty but not too smart, her Cunegonde rabidly pursues Candide at the outset before transforming her hapless swain into a sad-eyed Forrest Gump as she hops in and out of the beds of Europe and Latin America.
Molina is able to navigate—brilliantly—Bernstein’s fiendish “Glitter and Be Gay,” the show’s most famous piece, designed as the satire to end all satires on the vocal gymnastics of coloratura sopranos. In one of this production’s great comic touches, she launches this signature scene from a bubble bath, and things only get better from there. (For more on Packard and Molina as well as this current performing version of Candide, check out Gary Tischler’s excellent DC Theatrescene background piece here.
A third key character in Candide is the “old lady,” a real or imagined heir to the Polish throne whose lot is frequently thrown in with both Candide and Cunegonde. Her wit and wisdom frequently intervene to save the day. The role in this production is literally inhabited by Hollis Resnik whose broadly comic approach brings her scenes to pulsating life, particularly in her signature tune, “I Am Easily Assimilated.”
Other supporting players perform admirably throughout, each adding his or her uniquely bizarre comic riffs to their already absurd characters. These include Larry Yando’s clueless Pangloss—a brilliant satire on academics of all stripes; Erik Lochtefeld’s oily Maximilian, Cunegonde’s reprehensible brother; Jonathan Weir’s lascivious Paraguayan Governor; and Jesse J. Perez’ guy Friday, Cacambo. Tom Aulino also turned in a nice performance as Pangloss’ ultimate foil, Martin the pessimistic philosopher. But Zimmerman’s book sometimes lets him go on with this to the point of tediousness.
Save for Candide, Cunegonde, and the old lady, many in this production’s cast execute some smaller roles as well, and the transformations are generally seamless.
The small twelve-piece orchestra under the baton of Doug Peck was something of a disappointment. Some of the instrumentalists were weak in Bernstein’s famous overture. And the composer’s music overall is much richer when played by a full pit band. Perhaps economics were an issue here.
Nonetheless, this Zimmerman-Bernstein is a terrific evening of musical theater, buttressed with some uncommonly good intellectual oomph. It’s not really Bernstein’s Candide, to be sure. But it’s perhaps the most coherent stab yet at uniting both story and music into a seamless, challenging entertainment.
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Book by Mary Zimmerman based on Voltaire’s original novella and Hugh Wheeler’s revised book.
Lyrics by Richard Wilbur with additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein
Directed by Mary Zimmerman
Music direction by Doug Peck
A co-production of the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Goodman Theatre (Chicago)
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
- Trey Graham . City Paper
Susan Galbraith/Robert Darling . Alliance for New Music-Theatre
Edith Billups . Washington Times
David Hoffman . Fairfax Times
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Simon Saltzman . TheatreScene
Terry Teachout . Wall Street Journal
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Alan Zilberman . BrightestYoungThings
Tom Avila . MetroWeekly
- Don . WeLoveDC
Susan Davidson . CurtainUp
Leslie Milk . Washingtonian
- Jeremy Gerard . Bloomberg Business Week
- Barbara MacKay . DCExaminer
- Peter Marks . Washington Post