On New Year’s Eve, 2010, my mother and I went to the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall in downtown Washington, D.C., to see the musical production Candide, the latest incarnation of the 1956 Leonard Bernstein “comic operetta” whose original lyrics and book were by Richard Wilbur and Lillian Hellman respectively. (Hellman apparently brought the idea of adapting the novel to Bernstein. She saw a reflection of her experiences in 1950 with the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Hollywood blacklist, but Bernstein took the play out of the realm of political commentary. He continued to revise the work until just before his death in 1990.) This notoriously problem-riddled play, based on the 1759 novel by Voltaire, has never really worked in production and nearly every outing has begotten a revision of the book (John Caird, British director and playwright, and, for Harold Prince’s 1973 revival, Hugh Wheeler) and sometimes the lyrics (which have been tweaked, augmented, or rewritten by such theatrical stalwarts as Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Hellman, and Bernstein himself). It kept looking as though no one could make this script work if the music had to be accompanied by the libretto, which was often pared down to a minimum. (Following the ’56 début, which had been staged by none other than Tyrone Guthrie and closed after only 73 performances, countless concert performances of the play have been mounted, including one broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances from a live staging at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on 12 January 2005, with Kristin Chenoweth as Cunegonde and Patti LuPone as the Old Lady. The original cast recording became a best-seller in 1957 and introduced listeners to Bernstein’s score, which became the undisputed star of the play.)
Prince’s production, which started in Brooklyn at the Chelsea Theatre Center before moving to the Broadway Theatre in 1974, played all over the theater, the interior of which Prince had had reconstructed to include ramps and platforms through the house and a shallow stage in the rear of the auditorium. It ran 740 performances (one of which I saw in February of 1975, shortly after I moved to New York City); my recollection is that the production’s success was more for Prince’s environmental staging than Wheeler’s new book—though I remember enjoying the great theatricality of the experience (and the performance of Charles Kimbrough, who’d replaced Lewis J. Stadlen as Pangloss by then). Of course, you all know by now what a sucker I am for theatricality . . . . I’m sorry to report, then, that Mary Zimmerman, director of the STC production I just saw, didn’t improve on this—and my 35-year-old impression still holds because Zimmerman, like Prince, had used Wheeler’s script, enhanced with material from Voltaire’s novel. It didn’t sparkle—and the actors all stayed behind the proscenium.
Now, don’t let me get carried away here. This was in no way a bad experience. The company all had good to excellent voices (I even appreciated that Lauren Molina’s Cunegonde didn’t have Chenoweth’s high, piercing soprano which, to quote Archie Bunker, goes through my head like a nail) and the staging was often clever—the plot covers pretty much the whole world, from Westphalia in Germany (where the ham comes from, ironically), to Buenos Aires and a fantasy El Dorado in South America, to Constantinople, as well as the seas in between—doing with dolls and miniatures what film would resort to CGI to accomplish these days. On New Year’s Eve, I’m looking for a nice way to spend the evening before watching the ball drop in Times Square on TV, not so much a fabulous theater experience (though I wouldn’t eschew one—it’s just not a main priority on this particular occasion). In the Washington Post, Peter Marks described the production as a “thoughtfully conjured, eye-pleasing entertainment” and that’s what I got. Candide was nicely done, considering the inherent weaknesses, and the musical portion of the evening was far better than that. Bernstein still rules—and I suspect always will when it comes to Candide. We’ll just have to get over it.
STC’s Candide was a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where it ran from 17 September to 31 October last fall. (The Washington performances closed on 9 January.) The director, Mary Zimmerman, is a presence in Chicago (and now national) theater because of her innovative and inventive work (often with the Lookingglass Theatre) on such classics- or myth-based works as The Arabian Nights (Off-Broadway, 1994), The Odyssey (1999, Goodman, and then elsewhere around the country), Ovid’s Metamorphoses (which garnered her a Tony in 2002), and The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci (Off-Broadway, 2003). (For the STC, Zimmerman has also staged Shakespeare’s Pericles in 2004 and Argonautika, her adaptation of the Jason myth, in 2008; Arabian Nights opens at Washington’s Arena Stage this month. She has also lately directed opera at the Met.) In all of these highly-praised works, Zimmerman, the recipient of a 1998 MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius grant”), was the adapter or writer and was acclaimed for her use of the space, the physicality of the production, and such imaginative techniques as puppetry and other playful imagery. Until Candide, however, she had never tackled a musical. (It’s also STC’s first-ever musical.) Peter Marks also said the production was what “one had come to expect from an imagineer like Zimmerman,” but given her theatrical pedigree, she was very conventional in her treatment of the play—which surprised me as the production unfolded and I realized she wasn’t going to rival even ol’ Hal Prince from 35 years ago. (The Chicago Tribune said “the show seems afraid of truth.” To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from this staging. But I did figure Zimmerman would do something akin to the way she treated Ovid or Homer—and I expected she’d reinvent the libretto more than the contemporary references—intelligent design, the priestly sex scandal—she seems to have added.)
I’ll assume that I don’t need to summarize the plot of the picaresque Candide; if the play’s not well enough known, then the source material surely is. (Once again, I’m sure there are websites with summaries of the plot of either the operetta or the novel.) All I’ll say here is that it’s the tale of the journey of the sheltered, naïve, and eternally optimistic Candide (Voltaire’s full title was Candide, or Optimism), wandering from Germany through Bulgaria, Portugal, Holland, Argentina, Paraguay, Suriname, France, and Italy, to Turkey as the classic “blank page” tests Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s philosophy of Optimism as taught him by his tutor, Dr. Pangloss, against the vicissitudes of life, including war, the Lisbon earthquake (which inspired Voltaire to write the novel), and the Inquisition. (All the environmental and human evils Candide encounters are historical ones; Voltaire didn’t make up or even exaggerate them to make his point.) Leibniz’s main tenet, which Voltaire was ridiculing, was that we live in “the best of all possible worlds” and that everything that happens is for the best.
I can’t explain why Zimmerman’s direction seemed so tame in Candide, but her visual concept was certainly creative. The costumes by her long-time designer Mara Blumenthal were delightful and often slyly irreverent. (The perukes Cunegonde’s parents, the Baron and Baroness von Thunder, wear are outrageously ridiculous, like something from an 18th-century satirical cartoon. The Baron’s in particular stuck up atop his head like twin peaks of snow-white fluff. Having studied some costume, I know that these were modeled on actual wigs of the period, but just stylized enough to look foolish.) I can only imagine that Voltaire would have approved: he ridiculed nearly everything in the novel anyway, so making figures of fun look as asinine as he described them seems right. The writer wasn’t always subtle, either. The name of the sex interest in the story, Cunegonde, was selected for its sound as much as for the fact that it’s an old Germanic name: to the French ear, Cunegonde contains funny sounds which also happen to resemble very vulgar French words. (Cu is pronounced just like cul, the word for ‘ass’ and gonde sounds a lot like con, the vulgar term for female genitalia—which, just like the English equivalent, can be used as a nasty name for a woman.) Voltaire, who shared his countrymen’s distaste for everything German, surely chose Westphalia for the home of Cunegonde, her insufferable brother Maximilian, and the adopted Candide, because, among the French, it was thought of as a “barren region.” (It’s not, actually. It is—and was—a very mineral- and agriculture-rich area, much fought-over in its history.)
Dan Ostling’s set was both functional, serving often as a frame for Zimmerman’s stage pictures and Daniel Pelzig’s choreography, and a clever reference point for Voltaire’s satire. In the opening scene in the Baron’s Westphalian castle, the classroom where the three youngsters are instructed in Dr. Pangloss’s philosophy is depicted by a drop painted in mock 18th-century style. When Candide is evicted from the castle and starts on his voyage, the drop fell to the floor to reveal the paneled room that was the background for all the rest of the play’s locations, altered by a changing backdrop and projections across the wooden panels of the side walls. The set was used nicely by Zimmerman and her cast, with bits of suggestive scenery carried on and off to establish the place without overwhelming the stage or requiring hordes of stage hands. Most of the set pieces were moved by the actors themselves, usually including one who served as a narrator to connect each of the disparate scenes. The director used small props cleverly, including birds on long poles carried around the stage by actors, tiny boats sailing in the arms of actors to indicate a sea voyage, and a globe pulled across the stage on a string to indicate the hero traversing the world.
Zimmerman has used multiple narrators before, but here it constitutes one of the problems with the Hellman-Wheeler libretto. The story is just impossibly diffuse, and no amount of reworking even by the most talented writers like Hellman or Wheeler can change that since it’s in the nature of Voltaire’s novel. Narration is the only way to cover the gaps in the story, but after a while, it becomes a repetitively untheatrical and undramatic device. Other difficulties with the material, many of which derive from the source, are the huge number of incidental characters—19 roles in all—many of whom are important to one episode but then disappear entirely from the narrative. (In production, only the actors playing Candide, Cunegonde, and the Old Lady do not play multiple roles.) There is also the matter of Candide, the title character and basically the protagonist, though the character has no distinctive personality. Because he’s the quintessential blank slate, he’s a sponge for all the experiences of the story—but he has to remain essentially plain white bread in order to accomplish this mission. That leaves a huge void in the center of the operetta—the main character is little more than a hole in the air. It’s not by accident, I don’t think, that while stars or at least name actors have played Cunegonde, Pangloss, or the Old Lady, the actor playing Candide is often virtually unknown—though the character’s on stage for nearly the entire three-hour performance. Geoff Packard, the 29-year old actor who played Candide for Zimmerman, had all the technical attributes for the part, for instance: a sturdy physique; a pleasant face (not truly handsome, but boyishly reminiscent of Owen Wilson, with a blond mop of hair and a “nose with deviation,” as Fanny Brice had it in Funny Girl—Wilson’s looks broken; Packard’s is just too broad); a pleasing, but not spectacular, voice. But I have no idea how good an actor he really is (he has some major musical credits in his bio) because the role doesn’t demand he do much acting. He has—or displays—very little reaction to the horrors he witnesses and, even, experiences—which may be more a directorial fault than a textual one. (Actors will tell you that the hardest thing to do on stage is nothing—but being nothing is another matter.) Even Candide’s songs don’t compare to Cunegonde’s “Glitter and Be Gay” or the Old Lady’s “I Am Easily Assimilated” (the show-stopper of the first production and inevitably an audience-pleaser).
The cast was generally good, though no one stood out especially. Even Hollis Resnik as the Old Lady, possibly the best role in the play even without “Assimilated,” a lively tango-infused romp, didn’t burn particularly bright (though she was singled out in reviews both in Washington and Chicago). Lauren Molina (no relation to Alfred, by all accounts) and Larry Yando as Cunegonde and Pangloss were both fine, and Lauren has a nice, warm soprano that carried off Cunegonde’s songs well enough, though she seemed to be stretching a little at times. The best voice in the cast—a clear, strong tenor—belonged to Jonathan Weir, who played, among others, the Governor of Buenos Aires who sends innocent Candide off to war against the Jesuits in Paraguay so the Governor can make a move on Cunegonde. My impression, however, was that everyone, including Zimmerman and her actors, were so busy trying to keep the story moving along that no one had much time or focus for actual acting or character-creation. The roles, like the Old Lady or Pangloss, whose characters were limned by Voltaire, could fall back on those characterizations, but anyone with less-defined roles or who might otherwise have individualized her or his part was at a loss—and apparently didn’t receive any help from the director. Choreographer Pelzig managed a couple of nice dance numbers, particularly on “Assimilated,” but most of the movement was . . . well, movement rather than dance. It was all serviceable, but not rousing. In the Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones summed up Zimmerman’s work, which he called “aggravating,” as showing “a vexing inability to translate [her] understanding [of the text] into a personal journey that's undertaken with truth and touches the heart.” (Several of the published reviews, both in Washington and in Chicago, complained that the small, 12-piece orchestra was not adequate to reproduce Bernstein’s lush sounds, but I’m not musically astute enough to have noticed.)
In other words, what Prince got from his environmental staging, which he obviously substituted for textual drama, was lacking in Zimmerman’s interpretation. Prince famously went to a lot of trouble (and I imagine expense as well) to have the Broadway Theatre retrofitted for his all-over performance (I don’t know what he did in Brooklyn), and I suppose Zimmerman didn’t have that option even had she wanted it—Candide’s not Spider-Man and Zimmerman’s not Julie Taymor—but she found no alternative to enhancing the theatricality in lieu of dramatic and narrative impact. As a result, I guess what we had at the Harman was another concert version of Candide, but with a lot of extra motion.