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December 10, 2010

A Review – “Candide”

Roy Meachum

Since 18, I’ve been an admirer of Voltaire’s satirical “Candide,” converted into an operetta by composer Leonard Bernstein and author Lillian Hellman, more than 50 years ago.


The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s impressive production makes it crystal clear that he won; she lost.


Mr. Bernstein’s score has been always praised; the first snippet I heard was at 1965’s “White House Festival of the Arts.” Roberta Peters’ voice was brilliant in “Twitter and Be Gay.” Lauren Molina’s voice was no less brilliant in the STC presentation that runs until Sunday, January 9.


Director Mary Zimmerman gathered a team of stars when she presented her version, first at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre; now in Sidney Harmon Hall, opposite Verizon Center in Washington.


From Ms. Molina’s Cunegonde, the love interest of Candide Geoff Packard; Larry Yando’s Pangloss; Hollis Resnik as the very spunky Old Lady; the players play well and the singers are sensational. The singers and players are represented on stage by the same persons.


In approaching Ms. Zimmerman’s reworking “Candide” where several others have gone before, I found her direction stunning, binding together Choreographer Daniel Pelzig; Doug Peck who directed the pit orchestra and composed additional arrangements and orchestrations; Daniel Ostling who created breath-taking sets and Maria Blumenfeld, responsible for the gorgeous costumes. Every aspect knocked my socks off.


The director’s version of the book, the words spoken and not sung, reminded me of George S. Kaufman’s: “Satire closes Saturday night;” and the renowned playwright could have added: out of town.


You should know Lillian Hellman was going to write “Candide” as a play; she approached Leonard Bernstein about turning her idea into an operetta. The Broadway power of their hit-making names caused their collaboration to be presented as musical comedy.


Having reread the philosopher’s novella several times, Voltaire’s tome could be considered a comedy only in classical terms that it ends happily. Until the final scene, the characters undergo murder, rape, torture, the Inquisition’s deadly span and the earthquake that nearly leveled Lisbon’s buildings, killing many people in the city.


My first full exposure to Lennie Bernstein’s “Candide” came in a pre-Broadway production at the Kennedy Center, 18 years after the operetta debuted. In 1974, director Hal Prince drew in such unquestioned talents as Steven Sondheim, John La Touche and other proven Broadway craftsmen; they reworked the original lyrics, partially.


Critically assaulted for the original show, Ms. Hellman refused to let Mr. Prince use her libretto for his revival of the operetta. The famous theatrical personality dumped the problem in Hugh Wheeler’s lap; Ms. Zimmerman has added her insights, returning to the novella.


Nobody has solved the fundamental problem that cast “Candide” into a Broadway flop; George Kaufmann was right on the button.


“Candide” remains satire, which is how this week’s opening night audience reacted; chuckling almost continuously and laughing very much out loud, and frequently. This is not theatre for those caught up with shows that favor boy-meet-girl; they kiss and live happily thereafter.


In terms of operetta/musical comedy, nothing should be considered sacred; in the first place Voltaire’s narrative is frequently abandoned in favor of Mr. Bernstein’s music. My Broadway veteran son and I exited at almost exactly three hours after the overture started. The opening night crowd was composed, for the most part, of people who know the score; the album has remained a perennial best-seller.


My son did not enjoy the evening; his father the critic very much did. Take your pick.


Mary Zimmerman’s take on Lennie Bernstein’s “Candide” will be around over Christmas and New Year’s, closing the day after the Battle of New Orleans’ anniversary when schools always let students free, in remembrance of the battle.


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