"Whatever is, is right," wrote 18th century philosopher Alexander Pope, and it was precisely this attitude that Voltaire chose to satirize in "Candide, or Optimism," his slim volume that was considered so incendiary in its attacks on Church and State he published it under a pseudonym. His prime target was the popular notions espoused by philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz that stated "God assuredly always chooses the best," even such events as natural disasters, famine and war.
Cut to two centuries later. Playwright Lillian Hellman proposes to Leonard Bernstein that he write incidental music to a stage adaptation of "Candide" as a response to McCarthyism. He suggests - improbably enough - that they turn it into a Broadway musical, a lavish operetta really.
Well, perhaps not so improbably because Voltaire's novella is rich in incident and pointed satire - perfect content for high-minded musical theater piece. It also had a rarified pedigree of talent behind it: Hellman wrote the libretto, poet Richard Wilbur the bulk of the lyrics, Tyrone Guthrie staged it and, most significantly, Bernstein wrote (just prior to "West Side Story") one of the most glorious scores ever conceived for the theater.
But how do you solve a problem like "Candide" - a story so picaresque there’s literally a different adventure on every page? It stymied that original creative team. Their version was plagued with creative differences and a mixed critical reception and only played a matter of weeks in the winter of 1956; but its original cast album became such an immediate hit (it has never been out of the catalogue) that it spawned numerous adaptations. Over the years "Candide" has been expanded, conflated, concertized and juvenilized. The latter occurred in 1973 when Harold Prince staged a stripped down, one-act version that was a Broadway hit, which seemed less Voltaire and more Saturday Night Live, playing Bernstein’s score (reduced for a small ensemble) for laughs instead of musicality.
That revision - with book by Hugh Wheeler and additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim - has been the basis of performing versions ever since, which include one for the opera house, another supervised by Bernstein just prior to his death, and one that was devised for London’s Royal National Theatre that jettisoned much of Wheeler’s book and returned to the Voltaire original. That is the approach that adapter/director Mary Zimmerman takes with her new "Candide," which is at the Huntington Theatre Company through October 16. Though Wheeler is credited as being the book writer for this show, very little of his script remains.
Instead Zimmerman takes chunks of Voltaire, narrated by various members of the cast, to link the events in the story, which follows the naïve Candide’s adventures across late `18th century Europe and the New World. Along the way he’s kidnapped, starved, conscripted, tortured by the Inquisition, swindled, deceived, and made wealthy and poor again all the while believing the beliefs of his childhood teacher - Dr. Pangloss - that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Does she succeed? Brilliantly, it turns out. Her adaptation has a freewheeling spirit, but also a gravity that’s more in the spirit of the novel. This is as good as "Candide" is going to get.
Unlike Prince and Wheeler, who gave their version a "commedia dell’arte" spin; Zimmerman’s approach is more formal, less burlesque and (from all reports) more in the style of the original production. Hers, though, is more expansive, including sequences from Voltaire that were excluded previously. These additions, plus the inclusion of most of Bernstein’s score, make for a long show (nearly three hours), but the length is not a problem.
Why it works so well has everything to do with Zimmerman’s staging, which has the fractured fairy tale feel. She sets much of the show in a wood-paneled room in which come inns, ships, manors, jungles, gambling rooms, earthquake-prone cities, Venetian canals, even a mythical kingdom (Eldorado) draped in gold. Set designer Dan Ostling witty use of miniatures is in perfect pitch with Zimmerman’s concept - isn’t "Candide" a sophisticated cartoon a very un-Disney message? That may be why this production resonates so well - all the elements (Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes, Timothy J. Gerckens’ lighting and Doug Peck’s impeccable musical direction) fall together in such a unique and coherent whole as to take your breath away.
The actors playing Candide and Cunegonde have traveled with this production since it premiered in Chicago last fall before relocating to Washington DC, which may be why they are so accomplished. Geoff Packard conveys Candide’s guileless nature with sweet believability, and his lilting tenor is well-suited for Bernstein’s tenderest songs. Cunegonde, his vain love interest, may be the ultimate musical theater soubrette and Lauren Molina flawlessly sings this most difficult of roles. She is also hilarious, turning self obsession into comic gold. Assisted by Zimmerman’s droll staging, her rendition of "Glitter and Be Gay" is genius - about as funny a ten-minutes as you’ll spend in the theater this year.
Cheryl Stern is letter-perfect as the Old Lady, Cunegonde’s world weary companion (with half-a-buttock) who gets a show-stopping turn with her riotous "I Am Easily Assimilated," and holds her ground with Molina with "We Are Women," their song of female empowerment that happily finds its way into this version.
Erik Lochtefeld is a hoot as Maximillian, Cunegonde’s big gay brother; Larry Yando brings comic verve to the sanguine Pangloss; while Tom Aulino makes a strong impression as Martin, the pessimist Candide encounters in the New World. Timothy John Smith makes for a sexy Governor (and sings beautifully), Jesse J. Perez makes a goofily charming Cacambo; Candide’s manservant and Rebecca Finnegan has a funny turn as a Dutch tycoon who swindles Candide with brio in "Bon Voyage." Daniel Pelzig’s movement has an animated spirit that flows seamlessly from the action.
"The challenge to us was to dramatize and musicalize the stinging satire of ’Candide,’ without turning it into burlesque," Bernstein said in 1989 about the show. Happily, this is precisely what Zimmerman is doing at the Huntington. By imaginatively rethinking the most over thought show in Broadway history, she cracks the "Candide" code with the best of all possible results.
Candide continues through October 16, 2011 at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Huntington Theatre website,