I've seen Candide more times than I can really count. The first time I saw the show, it was in a fourth-floor walk-up loft in the Back Bay of Boston. It was about 30 years ago, but I seem to recall that they used the revised script from the 1974 Hal Prince revival.
Since then, I've seen Candide at regional houses, community theaters, concert halls, high school auditoriums, college black boxes, as well as on television and on Broadway. And the show has never worked for me. The score is glorious, at least on the show's numerous recordings, but no one has come up with a way to make the score work in the context of the show.
Until now, that is. The stunning new production of Candide that is now ending up its run at Boston's Huntington Theatre is easily the best version of the show that I've ever seen. Recreating her staging of the show that originally appeared at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, director Mary Zimmerman has taken Candide back to its literary roots and rediscovered much of the satiric bite of Voltaire's original work. She has also whipped the show up into a vivid froth of imaginative stagecraft that renders the show every bit as visually appealing and entertaining as it is thought-provoking.
After Candide's disappointing original Broadway run, there have been numerous attempts at rewriting the show's book, originally penned by playwright Lillian Hellman. The 1974 production featured an entirely new book by Hugh Wheeler, which has become more or less the standard version of the show. Then, in 1999, another iteration appeared at the Royal National Theater in London, with a yet another book, this time by John Caird. Zimmerman's version of Candide seems based on the Caird version, although I noticed even more changes to the script and amendments to the score.
Well, whatever Zimmerman did, it works. The current production combines a visually arresting sense of theatricality with deft modulation of the story's emotional elements. Zimmerman employs a significant amount of narration, which in the wrong hands can render a show inert, but Zimmerman makes the device compelling in a number of imaginative ways. For instance, to introduce the Lisbon earthquake, an important plot development, one of the supporting players steps forward with a tray full of small building replicas. When the earthquake occurs, the player shakes the tray and looks knowingly to the audience. It's a very simple but also wonderfully effective touch. The production is full of similarly simple but ingenious touches, including a simulated game of war, replete with playfully tossed cannonballs, and the memorable use of a luxuriously outfitted herd of toy sheep.
But Zimmerman's contribution amounts to more than just clever theatrics. As I mentioned, she's also emphasized the pointedly satirical aspects of what Voltaire intended to be a scathing attack, not merely on mindless optimism, but also the wretched excesses of both church and state. She's also brought out some of the more heartfelt moments of the show, and livened up the second act considerably. Candide can often be a rather tedious slog, but Zimmerman's version moves briskly and fluidly at all times. She's even found a way to enliven the song "Eldorado." Normally this number is a total yawn, but Zimmerman brings the song to life with interspersed dialog and lively staging throughout.
Although Zimmerman is the undisputed star of this Candide, the adorable Lauren Molina comes in a close second as Cunegonde. Some readers may not be used to seeing Molina without her cello (Ten Cents a Dance at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the recent Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, etc.), but Molina is also a wonderfully appealing performer in her own right, with a hell of a coloratura. Molina's "Glitter and Be Gay" was an absolute joy, brimming with enthusiasm and a spunky sense of playfulness.
I had heard some rumors that there was some interest in moving this Candide to New York, possibly to the Studio 54, now the that the Roundabout has (wisely, I think) canceled the previously announced revival of Bob Fosse's Dancin'. The Candide-transfer chatter seems to have died down, possibly in light of the rather large - and growing - number of musical revivals headed to Broadway this season. Nevertheless, it would be great to see this Candide live on beyond its Boston run. I mean, we finally have a Candide that genuinely works. Surely that's something worth preserving.