There has always been something not quite right about “Candide”. This is despite the fact that it is a musical based on a farce by Voltaire, with a score composed by Leonard Bernstein and a book and lyrics concocted by such wits as Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur and Dorothy Parker. But the show's Broadway premiere in 1956 was a flop. Since then director after director has tried to stage a winning production. Just as the young Candide insists that this is "the best of all possible worlds", so too have producers hoped that "Candide", with its royal pedigree, might be the best of all possible shows. But the play is simply too long, its score too weighty for such thin characters and a flimsy plot. It is with courage that Mary Zimmerman has braved the show with a new production, which opened recently at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. This “Candide” may be still be imperfect, but it is also utterly delicious.
Ms Zimmerman would seem uniquely suited to this show. Best known for “Metamorphoses”, her adaptation of Ovid’s poem, she revels in old texts. For this production, she has rewritten the book. At her finest, she can envelope an audience with a tingling sense of the fantastical. One particularly funny scene shows Candide at a play beside intolerable amateur critics. No play is perfect, Ms Zimmerman seems to argue, but there is no need to let a show’s flaws sap all of its joy.
When we meet Candide, he is living a shallow, simple life. (The first scene literally occupies a small sliver of the stage.) He loves Miss Cunegonde without knowing her and blindly subscribes to his master’s philosophy of optimism. Then, suddenly, he is banished from his mini-Eden. The back wall drops and he is alone on a deep stage, a barren space walled by dark wood panels.
As Candide embarks on his disastrous adventures, this panelled box becomes a ship, a jungle, a theatre, a boudoir and the glittering paradise of El Dorado. Ms Zimmerman is a master of optics. An enactment of war becomes an odd playground game, canon balls tossed morosely across the stage. Miss Cunegonde, reduced to prostitution and feeling rather sorry for herself, begins her famous aria while sitting in a bathtub, an absurd allusion to Jacques-Louis David’s "Death of Marat".
Like all good comedies, “Candide” paints a sparkling veneer on a pitch-black question: How, faced with humanity at its worst, can we cling to any hope? Just when vicious acts threaten to sink Candide’s optimism, a rope of kindness pulls him from despair. Ms Zimmerman’s small cast of 19 serves her well—the acts of cruelty seem more personal, the compassion more tender.
The orchestra acquits itself, pirouetting through Bernstein’s dizzy melodies, but the instruments are too few for so grand a score. The play itself is still far too long. Nevertheless, Ms Zimmerman provides a well-crafted setting for Bernstein’s jewel. Early in the play Candide and Miss Cunegonde sing one of their funnier duets—having realised they are in love, each blissfully ignores the other’s hopes for marriage. Later when the lovers, each ravaged by war, are reunited at last, they greet each other in a simple pianissimo, like two stunned sparrows. When the cast links arms at the end of the show, singing forte without accompaniment, the audience is rapt, that Zimmerman electricity zinging down every spine.
"Candide" is playing at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago through October 31st