“It’s understood in this best of all possible worlds, all’s for the good in this best of all possible worlds.” This is the maxim Dr. Pangloss lives by, and this is the lesson he is teaching his three supremely happy students when the curtain rises on Candide. The opening scene looks like something from a picture book. Only a small rectangle of the stage is revealed, containing a long table, a flatly sketched back wall and chandelier, and the inhabitants of the castle of Baron von Thunder-ten-tronck.

The people living here are awash in pleasure, undisturbed by any outside concerns. For them, ‘Life is Happiness Indeed.’ The young girl Cunegonde is “rich and unattached.” Her brother Maximilian is likewise an person of "awesome beauty." Candide is thrilled being able to grow up in this house, despite being of ignoble birth. The only bar to their complete happiness is the occasional pimple.

The tenuousness of this reality is revealed when Maximilan discovers Candide’s love for Cunegonde. Candide, being just a bastard, is thrown out. The painted chandelier falls, the backdrop is whisked away, and the rest of the stage is revealed, leaving Candide, alone, amidst an expanse of wood panels.

The set up of the wood panels will remind viewers of Zimmerman’s Argonautica, and indeed the set functions in much the same way. The panels are the canvas on which the magical story plays out. Zimmerman’s strengths are on display here: her whimsy, her acute sense of visuals, her ability to be silly and serious at the same time.

It is this final characteristic that makes Zimmerman such a match for Candide. Voltaire’s novel is an attack on absolute dogmas, especially optimism. He balances his acid with jest, using humor to ridicule human behavior. The operetta of Candide retains this tone, and Zimmerman makes full use of it. During a battle, cast members float and toss giant cannon balls. When one character is cured of disease, his sores are one-by-one pulled off from his face. When one character describes the tolls of war and disasters, others pass toy soldiers from bucket to bucket, dropping some along the way. These displaced soldiers are then swept up with giant brooms. There is a sense of play to this device, but it’s also a very clear statement on the dehumanizing effects of war.

Candide has had a mixed history. Voltaire’s original novel was an instant best seller when it was published in 1759 and inspired many adaptations. Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta originally debuted in 1959 with a book by Lillian Hellman who had suggested the idea. This production did not do well, closing after only two months. Success was found in later versions. Hugo Wheller rewrote Hellman’s script in 1973, and songs and scenes continue to be shuffled in subsequent productions. Mary Zimmerman continues this tradition of reworking the piece. She received permission from the Bernstein Estate to write a new book and increased the focus on Voltaire’s original work.

The original libretto employs a narrator, Voltaire himself. Zimmerman retains this setup, but uses various members of the cast. Delivered with a sardonic tone, these bits of narration carry us around the world, through the sweeping events that make up the plot of Candide.

After being thrown out of the castle, Candide must make his way in the world. He faces dangers with determined optimism and finds it does not serve him well. He is conscripted into an army, he learns that the people he loved are dead, discovers they are alive, is robbed, whipped, arrested, and abused. He struggles to adjust his rosy world view to the behaviors he witnesses. Through it all we are aghast at the horrors, all the while enjoying Bernstein’s luscious score and witty lyrics. The music soars through Sidney Harmen Hall, number after number pleasing and impressing. The players are stellar throughout, their voices are tremendous, and they are experts at acting through the songs. Lauren Molina shines in ‘Glitter and Be Gay,’ nailing every note, vocally and in terms of character. She and Hollis Resnik as the Old Lady make the most of the comedy in ‘We Are Women’. Geoff Packard brings an agreeable innocence and a lovely tenor voice to the role of Candide.

Zimmerman writes in her program note that Candide “manages to be affirmative—even transcendent—in the face of its own cynicism and satiric edge.” Zimmerman proves she is a director of incredible talent and intelligence for this description is precisely what comes across in the final moments of her production. Candide realizes that life isn’t as simple or as good or as beautiful as he thought. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t precious. He goes to Cunegonde and sings:

Let’s us try,
Before we die
To make some sense of life.
We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow.

As the ensemble joins Candide in this chorus, the silliness of the piece falls away, giving the audience a touching moment of pure sincerity. There’s something almost holy about what happens here. The cast joins hands, kneels in a straight line on stage, closes their eyes, and sings with unadulterated feeling. Green and yellow flowers slowly rise in between the wood planks and frame the stage and you can’t help but feel that just maybe we can all be a little bit better.

4 stars
Through January 9


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