The humor, horror of ‘Candide’
Huntington Theatre production captures Voltaire’s vision of human cruelty
If ever there was a right time for “Candide,’’ it might be now.
Consider the national mood. Just a week or so ago, fully three-quarters of the respondents to one major poll said the country is heading in the wrong direction, and a majority said today’s young people will be worse off than their parents. Optimism is scarce in our recession-weary nation, and few would presently mistake this for the best of all possible worlds.
Of course, Voltaire put his characters through worse travails than unemployment. The unsparing vision of human cruelty contained in his 18th-century novella, which remains the most blistering satire of the glass-half-full worldview ever written, permeates Mary Zimmerman’s skillful adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 musical version of “Candide.’’
Under her direction, a robust and vivid Huntington Theatre Company production captures both the humor and the horror of Voltaire’s tale. (Although she doesn’t include one of the book’s best lines, when a wised-up Candide asks: “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?’’)
“Candide’’ has had a famously complicated performance history, but one thing no one has ever disputed is the extraordinary vitality of Bernstein’s score. That gorgeous, exuberant music remains the best reason to experience “Candide.’’
But there are plenty of others in this production, starting with Lauren Molina. Molina is just wonderful as Cunegonde, the high-born best-beloved of humble and virtuous Candide (Geoff Packard). She brings comic zest to Cunegonde’s aura of self-delight and heart-rending poignancy to her downfall.
Take Molina’s showstopping performance of “Glitter and Be Gay,’’ which takes place after Cunegonde has gotten a taste of serious hardship. It begins in a claw-foot bathtub, where she is immersed in soap bubbles. Moving out of the tub, she is helped into her clothes by a servant, and as the servant pulls her corset tight, Molina warbles the song’s famous “ha ha ha-ha-ha-ha’’ in tandem with each pull of the strings. She then takes a look at herself in a mirror, and her face registers first shock at her appearance, then horror, then a kind of recovered vanity, then shock again.
This production of “Candide’’ premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in the fall of 2010, but Zimmerman has tightened the book recently. At nearly three hours, there are still times when it feels like too much of a good thing. But for the most part, there are few draggy moments.
The show unfolds in a series of vignettes that trace the journey of a young man who unquestioningly embraces the assertion of his teacher, Dr. Pangloss (Larry Yando), that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Or, as he says in the Huntington production, in Zimmerman’s pointed update: “It is clear that everything that exists is part of a great intelligent design.’’
Once Cunegonde’s father learns of Candide’s love for his daughter, he banishes the youth from the manor, whereupon Candide gets an education different from that Dr. Panglosss gave him as he travels from Westphalia through Europe and to the New World. The horrors mount: war, rape, murder, execution and whippings overseen by religious authorities (chillingly rendered in a number titled “Auto Da Fe’’), and an earthquake.
Packard, who possesses a clear, light tenor, makes for an appealing Candide. He hits the right balance, playing him as wide-eyed and generous-hearted but not obtuse. “Oh, Happy We,’’ a duet with Molina, soars. Yando delivers a very amusing performance as Pangloss. Erik Lochtefeld is a big asset as Maximilian, the vainglorious, foppish brother of Cunegonde. The scene in which Maximilian accidentally cuts his own throat with his own sword, enacted in slow-motion, is priceless.
While Cheryl Stern is capable enough as the Old Lady, her vocal shortcomings undermine the renditions of “I Am Easily Assimilated’’ and a duet with Molina, “We Are Women.’’ McCaela Donovan, so delightful as Janet van der Graaf in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Drowsy Chaperone,’’ is radiant but underused as Paquette, a servant. Timothy John Smith, as the Governor, and Jesse J. Perez, as Cacambo, offer solid support.
The set by Daniel Ostling is a versatile marvel, ranging from a castle to an execution courtyard to a scene of tropical profusion. Music director Doug Peck and a 14-member orchestra make sure we hear every note of Bernstein’s glorious score, right up to the stirring finale, ”Make Our Garden Grow’’
Through it all, Dr. Pangloss clings to his belief that “All is for the best.’’ And he’s right, at least as regards this “Candide.’’
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.