Zimmerman’s “Candide” offers the most of all possible words

September 28, 2010
By Dennis Polkow

Cunegonde (Lauren Molina) and Candide (Geoff Packard) declare their love in "Candide." Photo: Liz Lauren

Clocking in at over three hours, Mary Zimmerman’s epic new adaptation of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre Monday night, is the latest in a string of attempts to provide one of the finest musical scores ever written with an equally accomplished book to match.

Based on the Voltaire novella that sought to lampoon 18th century optimism, Candide was written for Broadway in 1956 and ran a mere 76 performances before folding, although the magnificent original cast album and the emergence of the show’s overture as a symphonic staple has kept the show alive as a cult classic.

Hal Prince oversaw revisions of the work in the early 1970s that replaced the original book with a one-act Broadway version and a two-act “opera house” version. The latter was further revised in 1982 and was the form in which it was presented by the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1994. Prince thought the original Candide was too stuffy, so he sought to make it a bawdy comedy rather than the cerebral satire Bernstein and company intended.

The composer allowed but had taken no part in these revisions, where half of his music ended up on the cutting room floor and the rest re-ordered. “In trying to eliminate what was admittedly a confusing book,” Bernstein told me in 1985, “the adapters also began tinkering with lyrics and where particular songs should be heard in the show, eliminating the overall musical architecture of the work, at least as I imagined it, and also tipping the work in too comedic of a direction.” The composer set out to correct this with his own “final revised version” which he completed and recorded mere months before his death in 1990; that version has yet to be heard in Chicago.

It was perhaps inevitable that Zimmerman—well-known for her user-friendly stage adaptations of classic literary works as well as more controversial Met opera productions–would eventually combine these two parallel career tracks with a Candide that seeks to join the best of Bernstein’s music with a text worthy of Voltaire’s satire.

The long stretches of Candide when Zimmerman was adapting Voltaire most literally were the most compelling moments Monday night, but, as is often the case with overly chatty musical theater books, when a song then comes along, it bumps forcibly into the action.

Somewhere around the two hour mark — already a half hour past the one-act version — the thought emerged that Zimmerman’s version does for words what Bernstein’s “final revised version” did for music. Just as Bernstein wanted a version where the primary impact would be emotional and music-saturated, Zimmerman wants a version where the primary impact is cerebral and verbiage-soaked. Rarely, however, do Bernstein’s Candide and Zimmerman’s adaptation have enough common vocabulary for that juxtaposition to be anything other than jarring.

As would befit an adaptation stronger on words than music, actors rather than singers make up most of the cast, though often actors with pleasant if banal “show” voices. Lauren Molina’s Cunegonde had an unpredictable vibrato and a tendency to shriek climactic high notes under pitch. She also tended to overwhelm Geoff Packard’s Candide in their duets and ensemble numbers.

The roles where character trumped vocalization were the most effective, notably Larry Yando’s Dr. Pangloss and Hollis Resnik’s show-stealing yet movingly nuanced take on the Old Lady.

The staging itself pays great attention to visual detail and goes back and forth between an almost grotesque realism to emphasize the immense suffering that the characters endure and the minimalist stage tricks that Zimmerman is so well known for; the Lisbon earthquake, for instance, is represented by a character holding a tray of a city made up of building blocks that she begins to shake vigorously.

Some of the staging of musical numbers are almost vaudeville-like, such as having Cunegonde begin Glitter and Be Gay in a bubble bath and emerge — while she is singing, mind you — to be dressed by a servant who tightens her corset while she breathlessly squeezes out her high notes. It is funny, to be sure, but such antics obliterate the musicality of the piece and also shroud vocal shortcomings in comedy.

It also felt that the dark and serious tone of Voltaire, as filtered through Zimmerman’s prism, became distractingly metaphysical muzak with sections of Bernstein’s joyous score used as underscored incidental music.

With all of the obvious expense and attention to smallest details laid out for this lavish production it seemed downright bizarre that Bernstein’s score, the real “star” of any Candide, was being so short-changed as to be played by a tiny 12-piece orchestra. Led by Doug Peck, the musicians were often drowned out by the voices, especially in the larger ensemble numbers. Even when the orchestra was performing alone, such as during the Overture and incidental sections, balances were poor, the brass bloops and volume overbearing, and the one-per-part strings tentative and often barely discernible.

Candide plays through October 31 at the Goodman Theatre. goodmantheatre.org; 312-443-3800.

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