Editorial Review

The Shakespeare's wonderfully sung 'Candide': The best of one possible world

By Peter Marks
Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Shakespeare Theatre Company has on its hands a 1,000-pound canary. It warbles like a dream, but boy, does it take up a lot of space.

Its name is "Candide," and for those who simply seek to savor its luscious music, the overblown, endlessly digressive story it has to tell will not be much of an obstacle. Be forewarned, though: The show's so enamored of its own cleverness that the marvelous musicality is crushed at times under the weight of its ungainly literary conceits.

"Candide" was birthed in the mid-1950s, with music by that most romantic of Broadway composers, Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by gifted American poet Richard Wilbur; and a book by playwright Lillian Hellman. It was a flop back then, and while some subsequent productions had more success - especially Harold Prince's high-spirited 1974 revival, with a revised book by Hugh Wheeler - the tinkering with the adaptation of Voltaire's celebrated 18th-century novella has never stopped.

Now, the voraciously creative director Mary Zimmerman is taking a crack at it, filling Sidney Harman Hall with the first Broadway musical this classical company has ever mounted, in a co-production with Chicago's Goodman Theatre that's partly based on the 1974 version.

The result, as viewed at its official opening Tuesday night, is the kind of thoughtfully conjured, eye-pleasing entertainment one has come to expect from an imagineer like Zimmerman. The proceedings benefit, too, from some lively, well-sung performances, particularly by Hollis Resnik in a supporting role as a crafty old survivor, and Geoff Packard as the adventurous naif of the title.

Still, at a running time of three hours, during which volumes of exposition gush like a swollen river over a levee, the musical feels anything but effortless. Consider the long-march itinerary: We stop in Germany, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Portugal, Argentina, Paraguay, Suriname, France, Italy and Turkey, along with some places not on any map. And of course you need ships - and long scenes aboard them - between destinations. By the end of such an extensive trip, you are the proverbial weary traveler.

In terms of theme and composition, "Candide" is a far more reasonable fit for the Shakespeare than the touring production of "Avenue Q" that visited the company's Lansburgh Theatre last summer. And Zimmerman is an apt candidate for the project. A Tony-winning expert ("Metamorphoses") at applying playful images to ancient myths and epic texts, the director is drawn to improbable, globe-trotting stories built around the idea of redemption. Her "Candide," oddly enough, seems to cross thematic paths with the sparkling "Pericles" she staged for the Shakespeare in 2004.

With that production, her "Candide" shares, among other things, the device of multiple narrators and a seagoing adventure that gives her faithful designers, Mara Blumenfeld on costumes and Dan Ostling on scenery, the opportunity to bring to life disparate realms with minimal fuss.

"Candide" is the satirical story of a young man who, schooled by the sunny Pangloss (Larry Yando) in the cockamamie idea that this is the best of all possible worlds, finds out how off-base this philosophy is. Pursuing his beloved Cunegonde (Lauren Molina) through all manner of natural and manmade horrors - from earthquakes to the Inquisition - Candide proves to be like a resilient crash dummy, absorbing every shock life delivers.

When the major characters are not undergoing their various trials, they are describing them to the other characters - a source of the book's leadenness. This is one of the myriad reasons the musical numbers are such tonics, though a slender 12-piece orchestra conducted by Doug Peck can only do so much justice to Bernstein's extraordinary overture.

Molina offers a rousingly comic encounter with the coloratura aria "Glitter and Be Gay"; the ensemble, guided by Zimmerman and choreographer Daniel Pelzig, gives satisfying bite to the sardonic persecution song "Auto-da-fe"; and Resnik has a crowd-pleasing blast with the tango-inflected "I Am Easily Assimilated." Most affecting of all is the choral rendition of "Make Our Garden Grow," the serene anthem that wraps up the evening.

Zimmerman and Ostling play in the production's physical surroundings with the notion of the illusions fostered by unbridled optimism: The show's first scene - set in the Westphalia castle in which Candide is raised along with Cunegonde and her insufferable brother Maximilian (Erik Lochtefeld) - takes place in front of a flimsy curtain depicting the chamber where Pangloss teaches. "Life Is Happiness Indeed," the characters sing, a maxim as thin as that fabric. The curtain falls away to reveal another Zimmerman hallmark, an architectural, paneled room in which the rest of the musical and its catalogue of calamities are dramatized.

The director's storybook visual style conforms agreeably to the episodic nature of "Candide." Walls retract to expose South American jungles and Venetian canals; actors emerge from doorways, carrying models of miniature cities and ships and hot air balloons; characters make escapes through sliding panels and traps in the floor.

Yando's Pangloss, Tom Aulino's Martin, Jonathan Weir's Governor and Jesse J. Perez's Cacambo all prove solid in their supporting assignments.

You'll find episodes to enjoy, just as others will have you glancing at your watch. You'll also discover that characters die and come back to life, which is not a bad way to think about the intermittent sparks of enchantment in "Candide," a show that flickers brightly, fades and flickers again.

Candide music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Richard Wilbur, book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler and Mary Zimmerman. Directed by Zimmerman. Music direction and orchestrations, Doug Peck; lighting, T.J. Gerckens; sound, Richard Woodbury. With Rebecca Finnegan, Margo Siebert, Rob Lindley, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Tempe Thomas, Chris Sizemore, Tracy Lynn Olivera. About three hours.

Mary Zimmerman brings 'Candide' and 'Arabian Nights' to Washington

By Celia Wren
Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Caution and Mary Zimmerman do not go hand in hand. The acclaimed Chicago-based director and adaptor is known for daring undertakings: dramatizations of epics and mythology; a lyrical, gymnastic play based on Leonardo da Vinci's musings; a site-specific riff on Proust. As if such material weren't risky enough, she writes her scripts at the last minute, during the rehearsal process. A 1998 winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, she nabbed a 2002 Tony Award for "Metamorphoses," which conjured Ovid's tales around an onstage pool. Recently she has reimagined scores for New York's Metropolitan Opera.

But until this year, Zimmerman - whose magic-storybook "Pericles" and shipboard-set "Argonautika" landed at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2004 and 2008, respectively - had not attempted musicals.

"I kind of resisted musicals forever, because everyone loves musicals, you know what I mean?" she says, with a laugh, as she sits in a quiet lounge off the Shakespeare Theatre's Sidney Harman Hall. "And I love the underdog, and the obscure text!" As if to underscore at least the canine metaphor, her pet Beary - a husky-esque mutt rescued from a shelter, now her rehearsal companion - nestles at her feet.

But showtunes have finally caught up with Zimmerman: Her production of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" has waltzed into Harman Hall, where it runs through Jan. 9. A co-production with Chicago's Goodman Theatre, which presented it earlier this fall, the musical features a book newly adapted - by Zimmerman - from Voltaire's 1759 philosophical novella.

It's one of two Zimmerman shows to hit the District this season. Starting Jan. 14, Arena Stage ushers in her Persian-carpet-bedecked "The Arabian Nights" - an older piece that the director is, for the first time, retooling for an in-the-round presentation.

In the recent interview, wearing a gray dress and turquoise scarf, her hair in a ponytail, Zimmerman admitted to being "thrilled" but "scared" by the prospect of spatially reconfiguring "Arabian Nights." By contrast, she spoke calmly of "Candide," often viewed as a thorny theatrical problem.

Adored for its score, the 1956 operetta has a sketchy production track record. Conceived by Bernstein and writer Lillian Hellman as a response to the era's anti-communism, the musical borrows from Voltaire's narrative, which flings a naive hero, Candide, across continents and into ghastly tragedies - wars, an earthquake, mass rape, an auto-da-fe - while he clings to his belief that he lives in "the best of all possible worlds."

The tale's picaresque structure and one-note satirical tone disgruntled audiences from the start: After premiering on Broadway, the musical lasted a mere 73 performances. Subsequent revivals added and discarded script sections and music, recalibrated the humor, recruited Stephen Sondheim for additional lyrics (Richard Wilbur had penned most of the previous ones), and added Voltaire as a character - among other desperate measures - leaving the property something of a "jigsaw puzzle," as Zimmerman puts it.

It's arguably a puzzle she is equipped to tackle, given her affinity for straggling, travelogue-peppered narratives from distant eras and her flair for integrating words, music, movement and luminous imagery into feats of self-aware storytelling. The hodgepodge elements of "Candide" may not spook a director who, according to her frequent set designer, Daniel Ostling, conceives of theater as "a tapestry," with script, acting and sensory elements "woven together so that they really can't be separated."

Raised largely in Lincoln, Neb., Zimmerman caught the theater bug early. Her "primal scene," she says, occurred during one of her professor parents' European sabbaticals. Playing in a wood near London, the young Mary came across a troupe rehearsing "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"The playfulness and collegiality and fun of it was just so gripping to me," she recalls.

She majored in theater at Northwestern University, and began directing as a performance studies grad student at the same institution, where she now teaches. She became (like Ostling) an ensemble member of Lookingglass, an adventurous Chicago company that mounted, among other productions, her "Eleven Rooms of Proust" and "The Odyssey."

Zimmerman built up name recognition after "Metamorphoses" opened at New York's Second Stage Theatre in October 2001. For audiences shaken by the recent terrorist attacks, the play's incantatory portraits of mutating souls, and lovers united and separated, resonated deeply.

"There was so much in it that allowed me to grieve for the first time," recalls Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith, who saw that off-Broadway production. Zimmerman's haunting imagery, she says, "can take the audience places that language doesn't touch."

Actor Erik Lochtefeld, a longtime Zimmerman collaborator who performed in "Metamorphoses" (and appears in "Candide"), agrees. Zimmerman aims "to speak to the subconscious," he says, adding that viewers are often "struck emotionally by moments they don't quite even understand."

"Metamorphoses" vaulted to Broadway. Back in the Windy City, Zimmerman became a resident director at Goodman, whose executive director, Roche Schulfer, and artistic director, Robert Falls, urged her to try musicals. "I had always thought that Mary's imagination, and her understanding and love of music, and her wit and visual imagination, were a perfect match" for the genre, Falls says.

He was also anxious to keep his colleague around the Goodman more: Zimmerman had begun accepting gigs ("Lucia di Lammermoor," "La Sonnambula," "Armida") at the Metropolitan Opera.

"The gifts that make her a great theater director make her a great opera director," observes the Met's general manager, Peter Gelb, who says he pursued Zimmerman extensively for the Met, and boasts that a work like her controversial "Sonnambula" achieved some "real theatrical coups."

Zimmerman, who calls her time at the Met "ecstatic - and extremely challenging," is still fond of her "Sonnambula," which she set backstage at a company staging "Sonnambula." Some audience members booed.

"I knew the moment that inspiration came to me, there were going to be people who didn't like it," she says, before adding, "I don't take it glibly! I want to be pleasing."

Working with music worshipers at the Met gave her a head start on "Candide" (where she has teamed with Music Director Doug Peck). She knew from the get-go that she wanted to create a book more or less from scratch, mining Voltaire, preserving the "melancholy edge" she sees in his novella, and not attempting to impose a conventional show-biz structure. As with works like "The Arabian Nights," she says, "my impulse always is to really trust the quirkiness and unsettledness and oddness of the original text."

And while one Chicago critic speculated that her production might be destined to become "the best of all possible 'Candides,' " Zimmerman disclaims any such sweeping ambition.

"It wasn't my goal to say, 'I will solve "Candide,' " she says modestly. "It's just, like: This is my taste."