Also see Nancy's review of Next Fall
Opening night at the Huntington was festive with a bevy of Boston theatre glitterati in attendance and a buzz of excitement for what was in store. Music Director Doug Peck conducts the 14-piece orchestra, which has the privilege of playing the soaring "Overture," considerably ramping up the expectation for this musical extravaganza. Bernstein's score for Candide ranks among the most loved and esteemed of Broadway musicals; unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the book. As a result, following its first staging in 1956, it has remained a work in progress and has been seen in numerous iterations. Variety praised the 2010 Zimmerman rendition as having the potential to become "the best of all possible Candides."
This being my maiden voyage on the good ship Candide, I am not able to offer any comparisons. However, the show at the Huntington is a great production, fantastically sung and acted by a stellar cast. Sweet-voiced Geoff Packard (Candide), Lauren Molina (Cunegonde) and Larry Yando (Pangloss) are a dream team who work together like a well-oiled machine and command the stage. In addition to her impressive vocal range, Molina displays serious comedy chops, especially in "Glitter and Be Gay." Erik Lochtefeld (who hails from Concord, Massachusetts) as Maximilian, Cheryl Stern as Old Lady, Jesse J. Perez as Cacambo, and Tom Aulino as Martin raise the bar for supporting players, each of them fleshing out their characters, warts and all. Local favorite Timothy John Smith is right at home as the leering Governor, and, although she is not in a featured role, McCaela Donovan grabs some attention as the housemaid Paquette. There is not a weak link in the balance of the ensemble.
The book tells the story of Candide, a young man without means who is the illegitimate nephew of a well-to-do Baron in the province of Westphalia. The boy and the Baron's beautiful daughter Cunegonde are tutored by the philosopher Dr. Pangloss, who optimistically believes that everything happens for the best and that Westphalia is the best of all possible worlds. When the couple falls in love, the Baron does not think this is for the best and kicks Candide out of the kingdom. Penniless and innocent, Candide bounces from adventure to adventure, viewing every situation through his optimistic lens. He travels the world, always hoping to consummate his marriage proposal with his love. Cunegonde and her family suffer horribly in a war, resulting in the destruction of their home and near loss of her life. It tests our credulity when the lovers reunite on more than one occasion (is the world that small?), but it turns out for the best.
Despite the brutality he faces at nearly every turn, Candide maintains his optimistic outlook. This is the source of much of the humor and absurdity inherent in the story. There is a fine line between thinking that Candide is genuinely a trusting naïf or believing that he is an idiot. As the play moves forward and he repeatedly makes bad choices or is taken advantage of, it becomes increasingly difficult to subscribe to the former theory. Yet, in the end, although he determines that he is no longer an optimist, he accepts and embraces a realistic view of life and finds a way to get on with it.
Elements of the book remind me of Pippin, about another directionless young man searching for himself in the world, and The Fantasticks, where the course of true love is also interrupted by less than desirable external circumstances. The fantasy aspect is not my cup of tea and makes the show feel longer than its two and a half hours. The clever staging of his travels notwithstanding, I was hoping that Candide would take a shortcut on his journey so that he and Cunegonde could, at last, live happily ever after. Fortunately, when the story drags, it is lifted on the wings of Bernstein's score and the amazing voices time after time.
Choreographer Daniel Pelzig has created lively dance numbers for the ensemble and several scenes contain intricate stage movement with props, one that is mind boggling involving the rotation of chairs and seating arrangements. In press materials, Pelzig says, "As in all of Mary's (Zimmerman) shows, the movement in Candide is fundamental to how the story is told. I believe that sometimes a gesture, or how a person moves, can give the audience more clues and information about a character than an entire monologue. My job as a choreographer is to support her vision of how the show lives on stage, moving the story forward without calling attention to the movement itself."
The challenge for scenic designer Daniel Ostling is to provide a simple, nondescript space upon which he can layer Candide's numerous destinations. To that end, the central set looks like a tall box with wall panels that open like windows for people or props to appear, and a sliding rear panel which reveals various backdrops to indicate the locale, such as Buenos Aires, El Dorado or Venice. The lighting design by T.J. Gerckens provides a range of hues and highlights for the different settings, and up lighting adds an eerie aura to the aforementioned chair scene. Richard Woodbury is the sound designer and maintains a good balance between the singers and orchestra.
Designer Mara Blumenfeld creates lush costumes for the wealthy Baron and his family, with scion Maximilian's suit and bows accentuating his ridiculous personality. In the cast of nineteen, all but three of the actors play multiple roles, assigning Blumenfeld a tall order. She dresses soldiers, sailors, men of the cloth, royalty and servants, to name a few, and distinguishes them all by their particular attire. I mean it as a compliment when I say that you can't tell the players without a scorecard because their costumes help them to inhabit each role distinctively.
In light of the brouhaha surrounding the reimagining of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, it is interesting to contrast the public's welcoming of continual rewrites of Candide over the past five decades. Granted, Bernstein was involved in earlier alterations, as were renowned director Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim. However, Mary Zimmerman's adaptation, in returning to the original Voltaire text, has taken the musical down another path that resonates for a modern audience. If Candide can maintain his optimism despite the brutality and tragedy he encounters on his journey, if he can be sustained by the hope of reuniting with his true love, then perhaps we too can plant the seeds of love and hope to make our garden grow.
Candide, through October 16 at Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org. Music by Leonard Bernstein, Book Adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler, Lyrics by Richard Wilbur; Additional Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein; Directed and Newly Adapted from the Voltaire by Mary Zimmerman; Original Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin; Choreography, Daniel Pelzig; Music Director/Additional Arrangements and Orchestrations, Doug Peck; Scenic Design, Daniel Ostling; Costume Design, Mara Blumenfeld; Lighting Design, T.J. Gerckens; Sound Design, Richard Woodbury; Production Stage Manager, M. William Shiner; Stage Managers, Kevin Robert Fitzpatrick and Kathryn Most.
Cast: Larry Yando, Geoff Packard, Lauren Molina, Erik Lochtefeld, McCaela Donovan, Travis Turner, Emma Rosenthal, Joey Stone, Alexander Elisa, Evan Harrington, Abby Mueller, Jeff Parker, Cheryl Stern, Jesse J. Perez, Timothy John Smith, Tempe Thomas, Spencer Curnutt, Rebecca Finnegan, Tom Aulino .