Candide, like Sondheim and Furth's Merrily We Roll Along, is a musical with a book that everyone seems to agree doesn't quite work, but since people love the score they do it anyway. Even so, Prince's 1974 production of Candide was a hit, running on Broadway for nearly two years. One of the keys to an entertaining Candide seems to be to keep Voltaire's picaresque story at a manic pace and to wrap it up before the story becomes tiresome. Prince's hit ran 105 minutesZimmerman's has another hour of stage time. This is risky business when you have a character (the Old Lady) who has only one buttock, as that image may make audiences more conscious of the comfort of their two late into the performance. The action gets to feeling repetitive because there's not much of an arc in Candideit's a collection of scenes in which the young hero and his friends experience horrendous misfortunes, followed by miraculous luck, until they are finally allowed to live a simple life.
I don't doubt that Zimmerman puts more of the novel onstage. There are some characters not in previous versions, like the cynical Martinan academic whose negative worldview is the opposite of Candide's optimistic teacher Dr. Pangloss. There's also Cacambo, who helps Candide navigate his way through South America before returning to Europe, as well as a greedy Dutch woman in South America who swindles Candide and an Anabaptist who first exposes him to religious persecution. There's so much book material in this version that the scenes get long and talky and slow down its pace.
The other key to an enjoyable Candide is to keep Bernstein's marvelous mock-operetta score coming at you. While this production has lots of musicit appears to include most of Bernstein's "final revised score" as performed by the Scottish Opera in 1988 and recorded under Bernstein's direction the next yearwe have to wait longer between numbers and it feels less of a music event. The lengthy book scenes get in the way and fail to lead into the songs as organically as they might. As it is, it seems we watching a new musical that has been written around the existing songs rather than one in which the creators integrated story, music and lyrics.
Even so, Zimmerman has a magnificent cast that sings the score soaringly and lands all the comic business smartly. The title character is played by Geoff Packard, who has worked on Broadway and in regional theater across the country. He has a gorgeous tenor and plays Candide quite straightinnocent, but not a dolt. Cunegonde is the marvelous Lauren Molina, the Johanna of John Doyle's Sweeney Todd on Broadway and on tour. She has the operatic chops for the part as well as the comic timing to play the young noblewoman who suffers so many indignities throughout the story. Wonderful character turns are given by Hollis Resnik as the Old Lady and Larry Yando as Pangloss. Resnik masters an Eastern European accent of indeterminate origin and gives us some great physical business as she's trying to sit in a chair with the disadvantage of having only one buttock. In her mastery of the comic and operatic requirements of the role, she's really quite perfect. Equally hilarious is Yando as Pangloss and other characters (including an acidic theater critic who likes absolutely nothing). He doesn't get to play Voltaire, as the narration responsibilities have been divided among members of the ensemble. Erik Lochtefeld is perfectly haughty as Cunegonde's brother Maximilian, who tries to keep up his noble pretensions in spite of the many humilities he's endured. The only complaint is that we don't see enough of Molina, Resnik, Lochtefeld and Yando. I'm not certain if their roles have been cut or if we simply have to wait longer between their entrances, but we'd like to spend more time with these marvelous performers in the roles we know so well from previous versions of the show.
There is compensation, though, from Zimmerman's inclusion of characters taken from the novel, but new to the musical. Tom Aulino is quote droll as Martin and Jesse J. Perez as Cacambo is a bundle of energy and comedy. Rebecca Finnegan does a nice turn as the duplicitous shipper Vanderdendur, who bilks Candide out of much of his fortune.
The visual design for the show is a mixed bag, with a few surprises but not as many as you'd expect. First and second act curtains include projections that suggest an original printed title page to the novel and programmes for an 18th century production. The opening scene in which Candide, Cunegonde and Pangloss are living happily is played in front of a backdrop, which falls abruptly when Candide is banished. This reveals a cavernous, Kafka-esque room in which Candide is alone and trapped. It's an arresting image, and the room is the setting for the rest of the show. Panels roll away or open up to allow other props or backdrops to appear, and projections sometimes transform the space into a specific locale, like the palace in which Cunegonde resides to serve as mistress to two Spaniards. Various props, ropes and miniatures establish scenes at sea and other places, but the sets by Daniel Ostling are less than sumptuous. Mara Blumenfeld's costumes are, however, covering the gamut from royal court elegance and religious ostentation to the simple garb of peasants and prisoners.
Music Director Doug Peck leads his cast, ensemble and 12-piece pit orchestra through an impressive performance of the Bernstein score, which at the end of the day is really the reason people keep coming back to this piece. Sure, the famed "Overture," a pops concert staple, sounds thin in comparison to memories of its performances by full symphony orchestras. As the program credits Deutsche Gramophone for the Overture, one wonders if the team here didn't consider simply playing a recording of Bernstein conducting it rather than risk the comparison. The pit orchestra suffers from no such comparison in the remainder of the score. Vocally and instrumentally, he's given a marvelous reading of the piece, accompanied by some impressive choreography by Daniel Pelzig.
Book writing of musicals is a difficult, much-maligned task, and a challenge Ms. Zimmerman ought not to take lightly. Throwing out an entire book (or two or three), that has been audience-tested, even if not completely successful, was a gutsy move. She might have better spent her energy and considerable talents in visualizing one of the versions already on paper and letting Peck and musicians and her marvelous cast all do what they do so well in the service of the piece. Candide closes with a narrator explaining that, in the garden to which the characters retire, each of them contributes according to their talents. It's a message from Voltaire Ms. Zimmerman might have done well to heed.
Candide will play through October 31, 2010, in the Goodman's Albert Theater. For tickets, call 312-443-3800, visit www.GoodmanTheatre.org or visit the box office at 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.