Susan Galbraith on Candide:
If you come hoping to see a reverential “revival” of Bernstein’s original musical, Candide, you will be startled, and some may be disappointed. By the time we got to the coloratura show stopper, “Glitter and Be Gay”, the show declared its downright iconoclasm. Instead of the soprano being fixed down front and center to show her stuff, Cunegonde starts the piece almost horizontal in a bathtub, emerges to disappear momentarily stage right behind a screen, and then proceeds to be dressed in full 18th century layers, all the while singing some of the most athletically x-treme passages in any American twentieth century musical. Here, as elsewhere, this production has chosen a Sondheim think-through-the-song approach to Bernstein’s lush score.
Despite this iconoclastic take, what we get is something quite original and in many ways a more valuable and complex Candide. Director Mary Zimmerman has rejected some of the so-many-cooks that collaborated on the book and lyrics over the years and returned to original source material to retell the tale in an attempt to get closer to Voltaire. Her findings create something wincingly funny and quite damning of our own society. Costly religious and philosophical wars, sexual predation by priests, prejudice against those who don’t believe or look like us, overlooked sexual abuse of women, seeming universal greed and violent shifts of economic power, and selfish and thoughtless youth – Voltaire had said it all.
Instead of a cartoon romp through Voltaire that defined the camp style of many Candide revivals, the actor-singers in this Shakespeare Theatre-Goodman Theatre co-production have mined the work for moments of emotional truth. Back to the bathtub-dressing number. Zimmerman cares little about canary trills for their own sake, and her Cunegonda shows us a young woman fighting her way back into the game of life from torture and sexual abuse – all while being ravaged by the lacing of corsets and other symbolic social “hamperings”. The emotional arcs of Candide and Cunegonde are especially well addressed in the story. The song “You Were Dead You Know”, where the lovers are first reunited, is usually performed as a pure send up of operatic love duets, but here the scene both touches and makes us laugh. When Candide finally catches up with Cunegonde at the end, he discovers she is no longer the beautiful, young dreamgirl he has imagined. His hesitation before he commits to marry her is painful in its truth about how life changes us and how, if we are to mature, we must face the decision of accepting a less-than-dreamy life-situation or partner.
In this production, the comparatively small theatrical ensemble engages in a marathon to tell Voltaire’s gargantuan story. In many cases, the singer-actors perform with simple props: big bowling-sized balls get rolled to denote aimless wars. Tin soldiers get poured out of baskets, tokens of the thousands of men killed in such wars. Model boats are carried aloft or rolled behind to keep the audience tracking the world travels of Candide and crew. The production doesn’t flinch from making fun of itself in scenes such as The Old Woman’s retelling of her gory life encounters, which we are told goes on for days, while the characters listen gasping and flopping like exhausted fish on the deck.
The process of developing this new Candide seems to have been as fascinating as the product. Zimmerman, who arrives day one of rehearsals without a script, works things out on and (one assumes) with her performers, watching and editing the highly physical explorations for how best to tell the story. Handing out a few pages every day to her actors, she then tinkers. The resultant images are at times diffuse and even confusing, but there are other pictures that are exquisite. The most powerful impressions of this production do not come primarily from the towering, walled set and raked stage, with its forced classical “perspective”, but from the ensemble and the economy of means employed by the actors, who build and dissolve world upon worlds through the purity of their storytelling.
Special mention should be made of the singing and the staging of the songs. By skillfully arranging the singer-actors suddenly to jump up or shift their bodies in space, Zimmerman has helped the audience follow Bernstein’s multi-part, highly complex score and brings visual as well as vocal focus from moment to moment. Music Director Doug Peck often reveals the rich palette of Bernstein’s music by pushing the extremes of tempi and dynamics. (Especially moving and powerful were the trio in “Auto da-fé” and some of the quiet prayer-like numbers.) Hollis Resnik as the Old Lady stood out in the big choreographed favorite “I Am Easily Assimilated”. I found her every moment delightful, from her clowning attempts to sit down with one buttock to her very poignant moments watching over Cunegonde through the ravages of time. She’s a Mother Courage with heart. Geoff Packard as the determinedly optimistic Candide brings depth and truth to this naïf.
By the time Candide and his little band of survivors arrive at the plot of land and settle in to make their garden grow, they are wiser and more humbled by life’s vicissitudes. The director has chosen to let the actors rest at last, and the vocal ensemble in this final anthem is at its best. “The best of all possible worlds”, it seems, according to Mary Zimmerman and her performers, comes in facing life with fortitude and a little help from your friends..
Robert Darling on Candide:
Notes To A Candide Production – 12/8/2010
Music Theater implies a balance between the two “parts” or, if you wish a unity. Theater music means something quite different. The initial comment at the discussion following the performance spoke to honoring Bernstein, hum . . . When Shakespeare Theater took on Candide my interest peaked to see how the organization effects this balance between music and theater, this unity. The production allied them with the Goodman Theater in Chicago, a positive alliance. Goodman has a longer history than STC in producing Music Theater; the Chicago review quotes in Asides promised much.
Candide enlisted some of the best music theater minds of the Twentieth Century and, with much wonderful iteration over the years still eludes a “standard” production, probably a good thing. Shakespeare Theater Company’s wonderful record with the classics of world theater repertory raised higher my expectations for this performance. A pre-performance discussion peaked curiosity further. I approached the show with great hopes.
My first outing with Candide was the original production on tour in San Francisco, which I did not understand at all. Then came two different Broadway productions both wonderful, and one I produced for the Central City Opera, with Erie Mills singing Cunegonda and directed by Peter Marc Shifter.
The director Mary Zimmerman’s interest in returning to Voltaire for guidance seemed on the surface a good idea. In doing this however, much of the work and discoveries not only of Bernstein but also, Hal Prince, Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur and a host of others, was obscured for the new look, the Eighteenth Century trumps the Twentieth Century. I found the result, especially in the first act very uneven. Prince, in particular worked to build a rhythm of expectation to the Auto-da-Fe sequence, which in this production and others ends Act One. But, instead of a steady arc to the finale a series of distractions were offered, unknown songs and bits of music, even whole scenes that, while following the Voltaire model, does little to strengthen the musical and the theatrical model provided by existing versions. The result, in the first act, presented an overly long series of sequences that did not add up, did not build in intensity to the curtain.
It was offered that Zimmerman’s focus worked toward a refreshing realism and not the cartoons that infect many other productions. The actor playing the young Baron in particular extended this idea in the discussion. In a few cases wonderful glimpses of a “reality” were offered, particularly at the end. But, surely the young Baron’s first entrance was an over-the-top cartoon as performed, while Candide and Cunegonda presented their best “good young student” imitations. The lyrics promote that idea: “Is that a Pimple” Maximilian exclaims. The visuals for the opening scene, wanting us to accept this 18th Century theatrical view with a simple drop and small proscenium, had nothing to do with “realism” nor was it a clean cartoon, rather a pale, insipid, one is tempted to say inept, stage picture. Only the mint green table provided color. Yet, the music projects more, much more. Since we hear the famous “the best in this best of all possible worlds” line over and over, an element of the satiric, if not exactly, a cartoon, seems to want an elevated sense of the comic. I saw no point playing down the sensuous look and delights of Paquette, which dampened much of the dialogue and lyric exchange, in an attempt at “the real.” A sense of the lust of Pangloss was lost in the feeble exchange shown. Or did I miss something? The first scene should set-up the erotic underpinning of this best of all possible worlds. That missing element, undercut much of what followed.
Once into the next scene, after a lovely scenic transition, the production became more consistent. Candide, alone in a new vastness, symbolized by a huge forced perspective room with only a gigantic blanket, the fallen castle drop, to curl in hit exactly the right note for the beautiful music of loneliness written for him by Bernstein. Then, his proscription by the soldiers lacked menace. I didn’t know why the war became a non-event. The series of events that follow, even the famous Earthquake, did not seem to build disaster upon disaster, nor the incredulous reunion of Cunegonda and Candide with its luminous music convince, the horrors of the brothel etc, all details leading to the infamous Auto da Fe sequence.
In the second act however, the arc of the action, became clearer with much imaginative staging culminating in the lovely finale in Constantinople. The beautiful tropical drop in South America, and the wall projections, offered beautiful contrasts to the spare paneled room of the basic set. Stylistically, I preferred this more abstract decor to the Eldorado Temple “School House,” the Venice Ground rows etc. The set piece of Cunegonda’s Riverbank Laundry, was, perfect. The use of a series of narrators to forward action was also telling in this scene when they note that Candide and Cunegonda, still not wed, she shrinks a bit, turns away, and he stiffens — heart breaking. Then, as Candide finally, reluctantly, reaches out to his disfigured love to help him build their garden a beautiful and right balance between satire and realism, music and theater brought the production wonderfully into focus. Zimmerman’s choice for the unresolved Voltaire end to his novel was a clear affirmation of hope, no matter what Voltaire thought. Getting dirty, scratching forth a garden, taking care of ourselves, being self reliant was indeed a way to make the best better, even without the cheap joke of the falling cow to pox in the original production.
It took awhile for me to get into this production. This was the night after the official opening and perhaps second night jitters infected things, but . . . The overture to Candide is not something you omit, as George did in Oklahoma. It is too well known and too marvelous. As performed at the Harman Center on Wednesday night it was awful. The scant orchestra is one thing, but bad, uneven amplification made that worse. The fact winds 1, 2, 3, fumbled as they changed instruments, did not play in tune, and were out of balance was inexcusable. The music-director/pianist failed to musically shape the phrases in this most familiar work. How could he? Was it well rehearsed or did they wait too late to concentrate on it? I’d hope that in the course of the run, money and time is found to balance the amplification and to rehearse the overture. I also worry about sustaining the vocal strength in the ensemble and especially Lauren Molina’s voice. Her voice seemed forced far too early in the evening. She was overheard to say after the performance, she was off to hop a bus to New York for an audition. Alas!
How wonderful to enjoy more Shakespeare Theater Company’s Music Theater productions, but they’ve much to learn in producing them. Arena had an advantage in tackling Oklahoma; George Fulginiti Shakar conducted many Arena Music Theatre productions. He realized a beautiful musical performance of that score giving unique insight into the familiar music. You might argue the Bernstein score for Candide is every bit as excellent, (or even more so) as the Rodgers score for Oklahoma, but the theater element in Oklahoma is better structured and the music and dance holds it together in a better way. The music direction at STC weakened the performance despite individual excellence from performers. And Mary Zimmerman’s view of adding insight from Voltaire, while of interest, mostly distracted. (I realize saying this I allow myself to be lampooned as the bewigged gentlemen in the Venice Scene. Alas again) …
for background info: