Candide–The Best of All Possible Shows

Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina in the Huntington Theatre Company's CANDIDE. Directed and newly adapted by Mary Zimmerman. Playing 9/10-10/16 at the BU Theatre. huntingtontheatre.org. Photo © T Charles Erickson

Candide, Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Adapted by Mary Zimmerman, Huntington Theatre Company, 9/10/11-10/13/11, http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/production.aspx?id=10114.

Reviewed by Leah White

(Boston, MA) Wow.  It’s hard to know where to begin when discussing Huntington Theatre Company’s Candide.  Mary Zimmerman’s new adaptation of this revered and much revised musical is staggering.

Based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella, “Candide, Or Optimism,” Candide was first produced as a musical in 1953 by the genius Leonard Bernstein.  Unfortunately, although he had the beginnings of a musical masterpiece, the show was not received well.  Reworked for decades, director and adapter Zimmerman has created a cohesive, brilliantly staged, beautifully performed work of art.

As expected, the overture is wondrous; the music and musicians so in sync that I was moved to close my eyes in an attempt to absorb it all.  Our first view of the set is in a palace setting, with Candide (Geoff Packard) and Cunegonde (Lauren Molina) preparing for the day’s lesson by their teacher, Pangloss (Larry Yando).  Soon, Maximilian (Erik Lochtefeld), Cunegonde’s outrageous brother breezes into the room.   The opening song firmly and delightfully establishes the characters, particularly the vain and exuberant Cunegonde and the sweet, simple Candide.

The magic of the staging and choreography becomes apparent with the first scene change…and every subsequent scene change.  Zimmerman has returned to the original text with a fresh touch that appears simple while, at the same time, mystifying.  Her use of the actors’ limbs and faces and movements makes a seagull on a stick swiftly fly across the stage and hand-tossed cannonballs convey the absurdity and destruction of war.

Equal to Zimmerman’s vision are the actors’ performances.  The large cast adeptly embodies an even larger cast of characters.  The voices and acting are superb and the costumes are magnificent.

One of the most anticipated songs in the show is Cunegonde’s “Glitter and Be Gay.”  Widely accepted as one of the most difficult arias in all of musical theatre, Molina does not disappoint.  On the contrary, her performance is exhilarating; her dexterity on display, she brings down the house with her radiance and talent.

The cast of the Huntington Theatre Company's CANDIDE. Directed and newly adapted by Mary Zimmerman. Playing 9/10-10/16 at the BU Theatre. huntingtontheatre.org. Photo © T Charles Erickson Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

There are slower moments in the second act, with quite a few minutes between songs, but they serve to remind us that this is at heart a philosophical exercise.  As the story comes to a close, the finale “Make Our Garden Grow” is glorious.  With the full cast singing some of the most lyrical notes ever written, I am certain that I was not the only audience member with goose bumps.  There were tears throughout the theatre and the audience leapt to its feet, cheering before the lights even came up for the curtain call.  In an era when gratuitous standing ovations are the norm, the Huntington Theatre, the cast, and Mary Zimmerman need know that this ovation was the only way the audience knew to give back a little of the joy experienced in the theatre that night.

Candide is playing at the BU Theatre through October 16th.  We can only hope that it will be extended.

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