“Candide” at the Harman Center
Washington’s theater season ended in an embarrassment of riches, especially for anyone who loves full-bodied productions of musicals.
We had not one but two productions of classic Rodgers and Hammerstein fare—Molly Smith’s wondrous staging of “Oklahoma”, which managed to honor the original in spirit with a freshness that made it a perfect launch for Arena’s impressive new, $100 million plus digs at the Mead Center for Theater Arts, and the touring company of “South Pacific” still present at the Kennedy Center, a rousing production both entertaining and emotionally strong.
If that wasn’t enough there was Andrew Lloyd Weber’s dark musical of “Sunset Boulevard” at Signature Theater and a warmly received and popular staging of “Annie” at Olney Theater.
In the middle of this bag of musical goodies, the Goodman Theater-Shakespeare Theater Company co-production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” stood out because it seemed almost to be a brand new show, and a kind of climax to the burst of musical theater, an extra goodie that went well beyond the standard of what we might expect out of musical theater.
“Candide” has its own pedigree, it’s mythology and history in Broadway lore, although not necessarily of the splendid kind. It had all kinds of big names attached to it, the most important of which was the music, composed by Leonard Bernstein. There was Voltaire, the author of the slim, cautionary 18th-century Enlightenment novel about a naïf whose life becomes one long illustration of Murphy’s Law after another. It had all kinds of additional literary heavyweights attached to it—Lillian Hellman, the playwright noted for “The Little Foxes” and acid wit chief among them, but also poet Richard Wilbur and a not-so-well-known lyricist named Stephen Sondheim, who would join up with Bernstein on “West Side Story”. “Candide” opened on Broadway in 1956 to little in-the-seats action, and lasted only for two months.
But “Candide” had legs—first as a best-selling cast album, then repeated revivals that kept the show in the public eye and mind of another generation of directors and talents. Now we have a new “Candide”, and this one clearly is the work of one chef—that is besides the glorious music and vision of Bernstein—and that would be director Mary Zimmerman, who knows a little something about epic theater.
Because “Candide” in spite being based on a slight—page-wise—volume, is an epic, it’s a great, rueful, adventure, a tale of journey’s embarked upon in the search of such verities as true love, and “the best of all possible worlds” in a world that , to any reasonable eyes and hearts, is no fit place for such notions.
Candide is a young man of dubious lineage who lives in a privileged world, is in love Cunegonde, the daughter of the lord of the manor somewhere in France. To these two, it seems they were born to be each other’s true love. This naiveté is aided and abetted by their tutor, who teaches them that they live in the best of all possible worlds, as they all sing happily.
Instead, because of his love for the spritely, slightly dizzy Cunegonde, Candide is kicked penniless out of the castle, drafted by an invading army, helped by a kindly Protestant type, and is re-united with Cunegonde whom he believed to be dead, and worse, raped. She’s gone up or sideways in the world, being the mistress of two men including a high-ranking cleric in the local inquisition. He ends up killing both men almost by accident, and off they go into the even crueler world, accompanied by the re-found tutor, and an older woman wise to the world, a kind of funny, lusty Mother Courage type. Their journeys take them to South America, where Candide manages to find El Dorado, gain and lose a fortune; lose Cunegonde again, before ending up once again in Europe, where he finds his true love older, defeated, and a slave to the Turks, along with his tutor and her brother. Freeing them takes the last of the gold he found in El Dorado, and so they end up becoming urban farmers, much, much sadder, and wiser.
Zimmerman tells this story—which tracks across a number of years and two continents—with a vast, shining set, puppets, and miniatures, tools which she used to great, magical effect in her production o f “The Argonauts” here. The style always steals up to the border of being awkwardly silly, but it never falls into the obvious trap. Instead, the story, based more firmly in Voltaire’s novel than in Hellman’s contemporary politics, moves along like a grand tale, a memory of a story told around a campfire, it’s told with great, almost cinematic zest.
The music is Bernstein’s elevated Broadway fare, with a tinge of his operatic work, sweeping, difficult to sing at times and always to the point and engaging. The music has a big wing-span that embraces the naivety of “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, to the slap-in-the-face irony of “A Fine Day for an Auto-Da-Fe”, to the Brechtian “I am Easily Assimilated” to the heartbreaking “Make Our Gardens Grow”, which is a kind of majestic solace of a song.
It’s a wonderful show to look at (love those red lambs) and it’s driven by two beguiling young performers, Geoff Packard as the breathless hero Candide and Lauren Molina as Cunegonde. Both of them are high-energy, youthful players and gifted singers, especially Molina, who tackles the rousing and rangy “Glitter and Be Gay”, a song which has a life of its own as a kind of testing game for sopranos. Molina passes with flying colors.
For musicals at least, it’s been the best of all possible worlds in Washington.