Friday, September 23, 2011

The best of all possible Candides

Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina in a touching reunion from Candide.

Sometimes the theatrical gods smile upon folly, and they're all but beaming right now at the Huntington, where Mary Zimmerman's improbable renovation of Candide is unfurling in a surprising burst of glory.  For the history of this musical has, in fact, been almost a mirror of the tale it tells; the adaptation of Voltaire's classic for the Broadway stage has been a long peregrination beset by disaster more often than triumph.

In its first incarnation, this spry satire of faith in "the best of all possible worlds" was sunk by Lillian Hellman's leaden book, although Leonard Bernstein's music (and Richard Wilbur's lyrics) were immediately acclaimed; indeed, the score was soon legend, and "fixing" Candide became an ongoing project of the Broadway smart set (even Stephen Sondheim lent a hand at one point).  Hugh Wheeler and Harold Prince condensed the musical by half in the 70's, and gave the whole thing a carnival spin that made it a hit (something like this version is still in the City Opera repertory, if the City Opera still exists, that is).  Bernstein wasn't so thrilled by this truncation, however - even after Prince and Wheeler later expanded it - and countered with a "definitive" symphonic version that attempted to recall from the bathos of farce the sense of romantic satire that had been his original aim.

Since then, Candide has bounced about in form and format, with everyone usually agreeing that the score hadn't yet been done justice (the crass New York concert revival in 2005 was a particular low).   But how to adapt Voltaire's rambling pamphlet without condensing it into farce remained a mystery - as did a method for reconciling the script's singularly skeptical tone with the lush panoply provided by its musical genius, Bernstein.  At its core, Candide was a contradiction.  Yet rather like Voltaire's deluded characters, people remained stubbornly optimistic that somehow, someday, the dream of uniting its two creative pole-stars could come true.

Well, now the Midwestern MacArthur "genius" Mary Zimmerman has turned her prodigious talents to this long-standing challenge.  And to my mind, she has indeed come up with the best of all possible Candides.  Or at least the best one we are likely to see in our lifetimes.  Yet suitably enough, the path of her production has been a wayward one.  It endured mysteriously mixed reviews at its Chicago opening, but as it has toured the country it has garnered awards, and its reputation has steadily built; I hear it has been tightened slightly, and surely the lead performances (Geoff Packard, Lauren Molina, and Larry Yando have been with it from the start) have all deepened.  Still, those initial notices seem bizarre at this point; this is one of those productions whose greatness you feel in your bones; and I don't think I'm alone in feeling that way - at the curtain call some of the people around me were all but screaming their approval, and my partner shouted himself hoarse.  The last time I felt this way at the Huntington was at All My Sons; and as I did with that production, I'm telling you if you miss this one, you will be missing a legend.

Packard and Molina  - one great performance, and one for the history books.  Photos: T. Charles Erickson
But musical purists, take note: the score may be the reason Candide has lasted, but ironically enough, Zimmerman has structured her version around Voltaire, not Bernstein (and she has cut one or two songs, while emphasizing others); the original orchestral forces have been reduced, and she has pulled the vocals back from the opera house and into the music hall (her leads have great pop voices, but they're not opera singers - not even Cunegonde).  So this Candide is no longer a great score with a musical attached; it's now back to being a musical with a great score attached.

Perhaps that new emphasis was the key to unlocking the tricky heart of the script; I don't know - but the irony is that while Zimmerman has put the spotlight back on Voltaire, she has found a supple emotional tone that matches Bernstein's score, too.  The book is still credited to Hugh Wheeler, but Zimmerman lists herself as adapter - and while this version has something of Wheeler's circusy touch, and more than a few broad jokes, Zimmerman's take is nevertheless deeper, longer, and richer than Wheeler's.  And her script no longer ridicules poor Candide and Cunegonde for their folly - a good choice, I think, for Voltaire's ultimate aim was to hold the mirror up to us all, not just Liebniz; thus Zimmerman has dispensed with a single, Voltairian narrator (instead the whole cast fills us in on background), and the musical's famously arch last line ("Any questions?") has gone missing.  Perhaps as a result, this is the only Candide I've ever seen that brought me close to tears (Molina and Packard had a lot to do with this, too).  Zimmerman even pulls off the novel trick of hanging onto some sense of unity as the action wanders back and forth across the globe.  Perhaps most importantly, she taps into the feeling, as one character puts it, that despite everything, we nevertheless "love life!"  That strange optimism which survives the death of "optimism" is, in the end, what powers the buoyant Candide.

And Zimmerman's direction, if anything, is even more inspired than her adaptation.  This Candide is studded with images that you'll never forget - chief among them the shocking moment when the comforting canvas of the ancien régime collapses, and poor Candide is left in a giant, empty room: Voltaire's godless universe in a paneled nutshell (the endlessly inventive scenic design is by Daniel Ostling). Elsewhere clever story-theatre tricks convey an earthquake, a battle at sea, and even the Seven Years' War (done up in a slow-motion ballet, with cannonballs whizzing by on fishing poles).  There are other wonders - the re-discovery of Cunegonde, for instance, (at top) is a small marvel of emotional choreography, and the final tableau of "Make Our Garden Grow" - with flowers pushing their way up from the stage floor - is a masterstroke.

Cheryl Stern, in a classic phrase, is "easily assimilated" as the Old Lady in Candide.

Still, none of this could work without a startlingly strong ensemble.  Again, Zimmerman's central trio - Geoff Packard (Candide), Lauren Molina (Cunegonde), and Larry Yando (Pangloss) - are all triple threats who have been perfectly cast.  Perhaps musical purists will note Molina isn't utterly secure pitch-wise at the top of her (enormous) range - but it's impossible to remember that when you're faced with the triumph of her portrayal; "Glitter and Be Gay" (again with brilliant help from Zimmerman) is a comic masterpiece, yet Molina also leaves the goofiness behind to bring off Cunegonde's ruin with the nuanced assurance of a tragedian; this is a performance for the history books.  And the handsome Packard, who has not only the looks for the part but also a beautifully light, fluid tenor, is convincingly sweet and undefiled to the end - while subtly insinuating a deepening world-weariness into Candide's picaresque profile.

Meanwhile Larry Yando makes a delightful Pangloss - again, the vocals are strong if not distinctive, but I could just watch this crafty talent all day, he tickles me so.  And I also can't forget Erik Lochtefeld's hilariously too-gay Maximilian, or Cheryl Stern's battered but worldly-wise Old Lady (Stern wasn't in strong voice on opening night, but made up for it with smoldering attitude).  Other stand-outs in the wide cast were Tom Aulino, Jesse J. Perez, Rebecca Finnegan, and our own McCaela Donovan and Timothy John Smith (who perhaps via his Huntington performances may be about to jump onto a larger theatrical wheel, as Nancy Carroll did before him).  But then praise is due to the entire cast, who all but leap through the many set-pieces Zimmerman and choreographer Daniel Pelzig have dreamt up for them, singing their hearts out all the while.

A few more musical caveats.  I wasn't always sold on music director Doug Peck's tempi, and the woodwinds' entrances were occasionally ragged during the brilliant overture on opening night.  They warmed up, though, and once I got used to the instrumental reduction here (the strings sounded slightly boosted by amplification to even things out), I appreciated its resourcefulness; you leave the production feeling you have indeed heard Candide.  I only sighed, I confess, at the a cappella finale of "Make Our Garden Grow," which can only be done full justice, I think, by a full chorus.  But perhaps even in the best of all possible productions you can't have absolutely everything.

(This animation to the famous overture isn't in the Huntington production, but it's so great I had to share it with you.)


  1. As always, a thoughtful review and Mr. Garvey is right. This is not to be missed! I was lucky enough to be at the dress rehearsal and I am inclined to go back. This Candide hits just the right tone - hilarious and heartbreaking at all the right places. The band is a terrific bunch of Boston's best players, but thumbs way down on the arrangements. What a hatchet job. They sometimes work OK, but often seem thin and carelessly balanced with odd choices of instrumentation. I did not miss the big chorus and the evening was well enough served vocally, even in the ensembles. But the orchestrations were a big disappointment in an otherwise very special evening.

  2. Thanks for your comment (and the compliment), Michael. But - ouch! "Hatchet jobs"? I can't go that far - not nearly - although I agree that those familiar with the lustrous original orchestrations will feel a gap in this version. But as I said, I adjusted to that gap, and of course to those who are new to "Candide," there won't be any gap at all.

  3. OK - perhaps that was a bit harsh (but only a bit). I was not comparing it to the big orchestral version (which is wonderful, but hardly practical at the Huntington). I have my quibbles with the Prince/Chelsea Theater version, but the arrangements were superb and infinitely more accomplished than what I heard at the Huntington. Nevertheless, my rants shouldn't keep anyone from heading down to the box office; you'll have a great time!

    Thanks again for the smartest theater writing in town!

  4. When I was 13-years-old my parents bought me a matinée ticket to see Candide. It was that experience that showed me just how powerful live theatre can be in comparison to film or television.

    Zimmerman's production had everything I enjoy about theatre as a medium.