Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On The Bright Side - Candide - Musical Review

Candide - Sidney Harman Hall (Shakespeare Theatre Company) - Washington, D.C. - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
By Leonard Bernstein, Directed and newly adapted from Voltaire by Mary ZImmerman
Runs until Jan. 9th 2011

I can see why Leonard Bernstein's Candide has historically been difficult to stage and why the book is problematic to get right. Based on Voltaire, the story of a young man named Candide goes EVERYWHERE, in an epic sprawling tale that crosses the earth and beyond. In this new take on the classic musical (one where I've actually never heard any of the famed music), artsy director Mary Zimmerman (the brilliant Metamorphoses, one of the best of last decade) takes on her first musical by re-writing the book (with permission from the Bernstein estate) and putting her directorial mark on the often-difficult-to-stage-show.

All I can say is that Mary Zimmerman is brilliant. Since I've never seen Candide before, I'm not sure what she's changed in the book (though some of the more modern sensibilities within the text and jokes seem to be nice updates), but I found Candide enthralling from beginning to end. It's still a sprawling tale that goes EVERYWHERE but Zimmerman smoothes over the narration interludes and the jumpy plot and with some spectacularly simple yet ingenious staging (incorporating miniatures, puppets, changing scales), Zimmerman's Candide is a theatrical feast of epic proportions!

Geoff Packard (Rock of Ages) makes a wonderfully gullible and lovable Candide. Packard's charm, lovely voice, and floppy blonde hair makes him an easy-to-like central figure. As the world (and Zimmerman) throws Candide around the stage and in various situations, Packard never loses our empathy.

Candide's reciprocated love and devotion for Cunegonde (a lovely Lauren Molina (Rock of Ages)) ends up getting him thrown out of the Baron's house he grew up in, and where Dr. Pangloss had taught him about living optimistically (and that the everything happens for a good reason). Expelled and alone, Candide ends up being used and abused by the nasty world, and where accidents and circumstances move Candide along the world, while he attempts to remain true to his old teacher's optimistic teachings.

The story brilliantly takes Candide through a long journey that dissects the theory of optimism, and makes barbed points about pessimism, and even takes Candide and his valet Camcambo (an amusing Jesse Perez) into a perfect world of red sheep and where children play with precious stones as they were toys, but without spoiling too much of the story, there's a wonderful balance to the tale and Zimmerman manages to cull the meandering and long story into a theatrical journey.

There are so many wonderfully superb sequences and scenes, that the flow of Zimmerman's Candide improves upon the often choppy story, easily moving from one situation to the next, one country to another. With a beautiful design that essentially uses one standard set, intricately revealing set pieces hidden within that pop out as needed, the simplicity manages to creatively whisk the audience away to a completely new worlds that Candide is thrust upon.

The ensemble cast is superb, including Erik B. BLochtefeld as Cunegonde's uncooperative brother, and Larry Yando as the Philosopher teacher. Candide may have been cut out from the Baron's life, and away from Cunegonde, but as the fates would have it, everyone in his life seems to meet again along his path of discovery, as he soon discovers life is both good and bad, and just is.

This new revival of Candide feels both fresh and invigorating, historic and yet modern. Zimmerman's entire production is quite chilling and yet comforting as we join Candide on his journey in life, and through the world.

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