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

CROWD-PLEASER: Hollis Resnik in the tango-inflected number "I Am Easily Assimilated," a musical highlight of an ultimately unwieldy "Candide."
CROWD-PLEASER: Hollis Resnik in the tango-inflected number "I Am Easily Assimilated," a musical highlight of an ultimately unwieldy "Candide." (Bill O'leary)

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 8:07 PM

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.

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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 Landsburgh 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. Through Jan. 9 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Visit www.shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.


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