Candide, at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****
I know that everyone goes to the theatre with their own expectations but for me, above all, I love a good story.
And Candide, at the Huntington Theatre Company, is an exuberant, inventive and melodic story about a young man's adventure-filled journey through life. There are so many twists and turns, memorable characters and shifting locations that I was enthralled.
Plus the score, by Leonard Bernstein, is glorious. I listened to the overture while I was driving to work and I had it in my head all day. Maybe it's the trombones and trumpets that give it a little added pizzazz but it's a thrilling piece of music. I even detected a few notes that sounded like West Side Story!
Geoff Packard is very appealing in the title role - youthful, eager and a bit naive. He's living in luxury on the estate of a baron in Westphalia when he gets a little too friendly with the baron's daughter, Cunegonde, a sweet and feisty Lauren Molina. As as a result, he's thrust out of paradise into the harshness of the real world.
But Candide perseveres - through war, an earthquake, a shipwreck. He travels from Europe to the jungles of South America, to real places and imaginary ones. He finds and loses Cunegonde more than once. All of this sorely tests the optimistic philosophy imparted by his tutor, Dr. Pangloss, that everything happens for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
Now you might think that all of this would be a bit dreary - there's a scene set during the Inquisition with the line "what a day for an auto-da-fe." But director Mary Zimmerman, who penned a new adaptation of Voltaire's 18th century satire, brings out the humor and sharpens the wit. She also keeps things moving. I never felt it dragged over the 3-hour length.
The supporting cast is terrific, too.
Cheryl Stern was perfect as the Old Lady who may be descended from Polish royalty but now, down on her luck, casts her lot with Cunegonde and Candide. Her solo number, "I Am Easily Assimilated," in which she regales them with her very involved life story, was hilarious. Eric Lochtefeld was great as Cunegonde's snobbish and slimy brother Maximilian. And Larry Yando's Pangloss was a wonderful sendup of academia.
Daniel Ostling's set design also plays a big role in highlighting the theatricality of the work.
When Candide is banished from the baron's home, he finds himself in a large wood-paneled room without any apparent entrance or exit. Then doors and windows open, characters appear, furniture is moved in and out. It's a stunning transition. Molina sings one of the musical's best-known songs, "Glitter and Be Gay," stepping out of a bathtub. My favorite touch was a flock of small, woolly red sheep that Candide stumbles upon.
Apparently, Candide, an operetta first performed in 1956, has always been considered something of a problem child. The Huntington program credits the book to Hugh Wheeler and the lyrics to Richard Wilbur with additional lyrics by, among others, Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker.
I can't say how this Candide stacks up against all others since this was the first time I'd seen it or even heard the music. But Zimmerman's production, which premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre with some of the same principal cast, worked for me.
In the end, Packard's Candide is more worldly, less naive. He's been on a rollicking, moving, often difficult and immensely entertaining journey.