Arena Stage's production of "Candide," the musical by Leonard Bernstein and Richard Wilbur, gives new meaning to that old word revival. It's a show that should quicken the pulse of even the stiffest sluggard.
With Wilbur's razor-edged lyrics set to some of Bernstein's best music -- to say nothing of an erupting volcano, storms at sea and a burning at the stake among the eye- popping effects -- the spectacle of "Candide" defies all but highest hyperbole.
It's a new, improved version of the original 1956 musical, which was based on Voltaire's satire of blushing innocence against the world. Harold Prince replaced Lillian Hellman's ponderous book with Hugh Wheeler's effervescently sharp-witted treatment in 1973, and enlisted Stephen Sondheim to write additional lyrics.
That collaboration must have worked wonders then, because it's surely doing that now. Add the current collection of talents -- Douglas C. Wager's inventive direction, Zack Brown's moveable feast of a set, and Marjorie Slaiman's zany costumes, plus performers wielding charms impossible to resist -- and you have a music-theater piece to knock off socks.
Told and sung in mock-heroic style, and narrated by Voltaire, "Candide" is the saga of an irrepressible optimist. First comically -- then movingly -- he's undaunted by the wickedness that befalls him as he wanders over two hemispheres.
His beloved from Westphalia, Cunegonde, is kidnaped by marauding Bulgarians and becomes a whore, while he himself is forcibly conscripted into the Bulgarian army, flogged by the Church he reveres, and tricked by corrupt politicians. But Candide never doubts the teachings of his master: that we live, as the song goes, in "The Best of All Possible Worlds."
Paul Binotto sings the title role with fresh-faced energy, and shines with squeaky-clean appeal. Marilyn Caskey as Cunegonde is a delight of a fallen woman, stopping the show with her ironic motto, "Glitter and Be Gay." Doubling as the master Pangloss and Voltaire, Richard Bauer serves as comic glue, holding matters together with foolery and wisdom. Everyone else -- actors, musicians, technicians -- is in top form. CANDIDE -- At Arena Stage for an indefinite run.