A CurtainUp DC Review
Candide (Geoff Packard) loves Cunegonde (Lauren Molina). Cunegonde loves Candide. Maximilian loves himself -- a wonderful parody by Erik Lochtefeld. Cunegonde goes away (I can't remember why) and is followed by Candide to the ends of the earth, literally.
To prove that this is not the best of all possible worlds Voltaire, plus the writers and translators who have worked from his text, take Candide on an 18th century version of the junior year abroad from hell. The poor lad is confronted with disasters galore, some made by man (war, murder, rape), some by nature (a tempest, an earthquake.) He makes his way from Westphalia in Germany, to Bulgaria, Holland, Portugal, Argentina, Paraguay, Italy and Turkey. While the wonderfully energetic Geoff Packard, a nimble mover with a strong voice, appears to cope with whatever life throws at him, some audience members might show signs of fatigue by the time the second act begins. By the time it ends though all is again well. Candide and Cunegonde are reunited (although she's a bit worse for wear) and the couple are ready to "cultivate their garden."
The second act belongs to Candide, but it is Cunegonde who dominates in the first. Her coloratura fills the acoustically-challenged Harman and her comic timing is impeccable. Clothed for the opening scene in a frilly gown resembling a tiered wedding cake, costume designer Mara Blumenfeld completes the outfit with a hair bow whose pointed loops resemble a pig's pink ears but from then on all Blumenfeld's costumes are rich in texture and color, quite serious too. She deserves much credit for the evening's success.
Zimmerman's style is distinctive, always visual and sometimes funny, in ways as varied as academic wit and Marx Brothers slapstick. Her use of artistic and literary references are frequent but never over-played. For instance, in the first scene, she uses a projection of the frontispiece of the original novel before continuing to a set whose murals are reminiscent of the 18th-century French rococo painter, Fragonard. When that screen is removed, set designer Daniel Ostling and lighting designer T. J. Gerckens deliver one of the evening's most memorable sights: Candide's dark black shadow offset by the raked stage and blank, paneled walls. That set is turned into many locales, such as the jungle, a battle ground, even Lisbon during an earthquake.
While other directors might take such a seismic event to play with all the equipment a theatre has to offer, Zimmerman uses symbols and artistic references. Years ago, Arena Stage's production of Candide featured very loud sound effects and the crumbling of all four walls lining the theatre in the round. Zimmerman's approach is just the opposite. In some ways, she is a minimalist. For her Lisbon scene, an actor enters holding a tray with miniature buildings on it. As the earth quakes, the toy-sized buildings fall to the ground one-by-one at first then in a rapid cascade. Another striking image is Cunegonde in a bath tub. Not for prurient reasons but because it is reminiscent of Jacques-Louis David's 1793 painting "The Death of Marat."
For those who saw Zimmerman's staging of Pericles at the Shakespeare Theatre some years ago, there is a sense of déjàvu as the stuffed lambs make an encore appearance along with miniature boats, boards painted to look like waves, and a little globe that glides along a rope, symbolizing the crossing of oceans. While repetition of dire straits slows the book, it is the music and the performers who carry this three-hour long musical. "Life is Happiness Indeed," is not just the title of a song sung by Candide, it is a good summation of the lyrics and, especially Daniel Pelzig's clever, witty and fast moving choreography. Pangloss has much fun in a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song style and speed with "What a Day for an Auto-da-Fé," particularly the verse about "the dear souvenir," an embarassing virus, that is passed on from friend to friend. "Glitter and Be Gay," a popular ring tone in some circles, continues to sparkle. But the most memorable song of the evening, because of, well, everything—- lyrics, choreography and knock out performance by Hollis Resnik and the chorus — is the Old Lady's Tango"I'm Easily Assimilated." "We are Women", and " Allelulia", numbers that had been dropped in some prior productions, are reinstated. The former, very successfully; the latter a facetious ode to piety, less so
.All the cast is fine, particularly Geoff Packard, Lauren Molina, and Larry Yando. But it is Hollis Resnik as the Old Lady who steals the show. She's a brilliant comic, gifted singer, elegant dancer, and utterly hilarious.
There have been many versions of Candide and many contributors to its checkered past. Along with satirist Voltaire, the lineup includes lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John LaTouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein; Hugh Wheeler wrote the book for the original musical and now Mary Zimmerman has adapted it. Leonard Bernstein's music, particularly the overture, is glorious. No wonder it is a staple of classical music radio stations and the opener for many symphony orchestras concerts.
Voltaire wrote that optimism "is a mania for maintaining that all is well when things are going badly." Thanks to his wit and satire and those who are interpreting it, Washington has something to laugh about this December.