This highly anticipated Goodman Theater production of the Leonard Bernstein musical “Candide,” directed by Mary Zimmerman (“Metamorphoses,” “Argonautika”), opens an exciting new chapter in the storied but not smooth history of this title. Zimmerman has adapted the satirical Voltaire novella from scratch while remaining true to Bernstein’s beloved score. And while Zimmerman still needs to trim her over-ambitious book and improve the show’s rhythms as a musical — there are sections in act two that go on far too long without one of Bernstein’s songs — this version has potential to become the best of all possible “Candides.”
“Candide” was originally produced on Broadway in 1956, with a book by Lillian Hellman, which ran a meager 73 performances. Hal Prince revived the show on Broadway with a decidedly lighter book by Hugh Wheeler in 1974, to greater success, and again in a more expanded version in 1997. Wheeler’s work remains credited here for contractual reasons, but Zimmerman has put this production through the rigors of her usual process, crafting an original script during rehearsals that translates fanciful tales into thoughtful, accessible and theatrical narratives, gorgeously staged.
This show looks and feels very much like a Zimmerman show; a handheld model of Lisbon made of easily wobbled blocks serves to suggest a major earthquake, for example. The auteur quality of the staging may disturb some devotees who would prefer fewer distractions from the score, as well as a lighter tone. But with the assistance of music director Doug Peck, Zimmerman makes many of the songs feel far more dramatic and layered than they have before; “Glitter and Be Gay” becomes an emotional debate between endurance and despair that the show’s much-abused ingenue Cunegonde (the golden-voiced Lauren Molina) has with herself.
A satire on the philosophy of “Optimisme” — this is the best of all possible worlds, and therefore everything is for the best — the show feels remarkably current at a time when America’s own unrelenting optimism is being tested. While there’s no Wall Street collapse in the show, there is sudden impoverishment, natural disaster, political corruption and religious warfare galore, as Candide (played as a purposefully dry, not-so-naive picaresque hero by Geoff Packard) endures the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, separating from and reuniting over and over with his beloved Cunegonde, the philosopher Pangloss (a spot-on, exceptionally funny Larry Yando), the Old Lady (Hollis Resnik, also terrific), and even his valet Cacambo (Jesse J. Perez), a character Zimmerman has restored to prominence.
The second act does drag — in one sequence, Zimmerman gets over-infatuated with the visual possibilities of the utopia El Dorado, which looks beautiful but brings the narrative to a crawl. And her own expressive sympathy for humanity gets sentimental towards the end, losing touch with Voltaire’s more scathing sensibility.
But she’s not finished yet. The show will move from Chicago to the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., and if the Bernstein estate approves, it seems a likely bet for the multiple regional theaters where Zimmerman has an existing fan base.