Imagine a naive young man who has been indoctrinated from an early age with the philosophy that “this is the best of all possible worlds” and everything that happens is good. Cast this young man off to seek his fortune amid wars, inquisitions, earthquakes, and other calamities both natural and man-made. Expose him to the evils that lurk in the hearts and minds of nearly everyone he meets. How long can his blind faith survive? Is optimism a gift or a curse?
Voltaire wrote Candide in 1759, and Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman adapted it as a musical in 1956. Despite the beautiful music, which sold well as a recording, Candide didn’t do well with New York audiences. Hugh Wheeler later rewrote Hellman’s book and won a Tony Award for it. The show has been revised and revived several times to make it more audience-friendly.
This newly revised version has the original Bernstein score. But the book has been tweaked and polished again by writer and director Mary Zimmerman—and this time, it glistens. The result is both wry and rollicking as Candide’s rosy optimism meets the raucous enthusiasm of a crowd anticipating a hanging or a crook looking for a new victim. In the process, the playwright pillories almost every institution of church and state.
This is a joint production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, so a number of the leads aren’t locals. Geoff Packard (Candide) has a sweet tenor and a winning demeanor that makes him a delight to watch. His lady love, the crafty and duplicitous Cunegonde, is played by the fabulous Lauren Molina. This lady has a voice that can rise to operatic ranges for a lilting aria and then fall to the lower registers to deliver a bawdy ballad. Molina and Hollis Resnik (Old Lady) sing a delicious duet about feminine charms that’s one of several crowd pleasers.
The set is cleverly designed by Daniel Ostling with plenty of silly details, including cardboard waves and trap doors, to keep the audience from taking things too seriously. Choreographer Daniel Pelzig has created a nice mix of big, energetic dance numbers and slick, close-group maneuvers à la Bob Fosse.
This is a long production—almost three hours with just one intermission. One might wish that Zimmerman had chosen to skip a calamity or two. But every musical number is a joy to behold. Candide may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but he and the company have created the best of all theatrical worlds.
At Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall through January 9. Tickets ($48 to $103) are available here.