Mary Zimmerman’s imagining of Voltaire’s “Candide,” with the score of Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway musical, opened at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago Sunday evening.
It is a very fine show with a strong cast, plenty of laughs and, of course, superb songs.
The first question about “Candide”—often done as an opera and rightly so—is who will sing “Glitter and be Gay?” It is a virtuoso aria for Candide’s sweetheart Cunegonde, played in the original 1956 Broadway production by the redoubtable Barbara Cook, who found the song a challenge despite her amazing vocal agility and depth.
Goodman cast Lauren Molina in the role and she did it, handling the ornamental “Ha, ha, ha” as if she were laughing. In a clever bit of staging, she sings that song while she is being laced into a corset by the Old Woman, played with comic intensity by Chicago favorite Hollis Resnik.
And what a Candide! Geoff Packard has the title role and has been blessed with one of the most beautiful voices in musical theater today. From his first notes, his tone is mellow and rich, lullaby smooth and soothing. Plus, he manages to be guileless without ever being cloying, and handles his character’s disillusionment with grace. We must see and hear him again.
Zimmerman has gone back to Voltaire’s original satire for her script, and the dialogue does differ from the original book by Hugh Wheeler. However, the message is the same: wars claim thousands of lives, people lie, greed is everywhere, and natural disasters can strike any time. The capriciousness of nature and man’s inhumanity to man make a shambles of the contention that everything happens for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Life upends what Candide learned from his tutor Dr. Pangloss, the main comic character, played broadly by Larry Yando, another fine Chicago actor.
No review of Zimmerman’s work is complete without a cheer for her stagecraft. Her red sheep from South America are a continual source of laughs. When a character is making a voyage, she sometimes uses a small wooden model of a full-masted schooner carried aloft across the stage. And once she uses an actress, bosom extended, as the figurehead on a make-believe ship.
Goodman has a dozen musicians in the pit, conducted by music director Doug Peck, who doubles as pianist and did additional arrangements and orchestrations. We are accustomed to hearing the Overture to “Candide” played in full orchestral recordings, so when Peck strikes up the band, the sound is thin. Things improve as the ensemble serves as an accompanist to the singers. Still, I missed a larger sound.
The evening runs three hours, with one intermission, as Candide endures indignities and calamities, one after another. But don’t leave until the last and most beautiful song, “Make Our Garden Grow.” It’s worth the whole night.
“Candide” runs through Oct. 31 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. For tickets, call 312-443-3800, visit goodmantheatre.org or the box office.