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BWW Reviews: Huntington's 'Candide' Is Quite Possibly the Best of All Possible

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Music by Leonard Bernstein; book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler; lyrics by Richard Wilbur; additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Leonard Bernstein; directed and newly adapted from the Voltaire by Mary Zimmerman; original orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin; director/adapter, Mary Zimmerman; choreographer, Daniel Pelzig; music director/additional arrangements and orchestrations, Doug Peck; scenic design, Daniel Ostling; costume design, Mara Blumenfeld; lighting design, T.J. Gerckens; sound design, Richard Woodbury; production stage manager, M. William Shiner

Cast: Pangloss and others, Larry Yando; Candide, Geoff Packard; Cunegonde, Lauren Molina; Maximilian and others, Erik Lochtefeld; Paquette and others, McCaela Donovan; Servant and others, Travis Turner; Bird and others, Emma Rosenthal; Soldier and others, Joey Stone; Soldier and others, Alexander Elisa; Orator and others, Evan Harrington, Orator's Wife and others, Abby Mueller; Anabaptist and others, Jeff Parker; Old Lady, Cheryl Stern; Cacambo and others, Jesse J. Perez; Governor and others, Timothy John Smith; Queen of El Dorado and others, Tempe Thomas; Sailor and others, Spencer Curnutt; Vanderdendur and others, Rebecca Finnegan; Martin and others, Tom Aulino

Performances: Now through October 16, Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston; tickets range from $25 to $105 (student rush $15) and are available by calling 617-266-0800, online at www.huntingtontheatre.org, or at the Box Office Tuesday through Saturday, noon to curtain (or 6 p.m.), and Sunday noon to curtain (or 4 p.m.).

Candide, Leonard Bernstein's brilliant musical based on Voltaire's satirical 1759 novella that skewered the absurdity of blind optimism in the face of earthquakes, floods, wars, and other human miseries, has gone through many revisions since it debuted in 1956. Lillian Hellman's original book has been all but forgotten since Hal Prince helmed a popular one-act revival in 1974 (and another grand and expanded version in 1997) that featured a more faithful, and comical, translation by Hugh Wheeler. An acclaimed 1999 London revival rewritten by John Caird also included minor lyrical enhancements by original lyricist Richard Wilbur and Stephen Sondheim.

It is yet another version, directed and adapted by MacArthur Genius and Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman, which is enthralling audiences at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston through October 16. Quite possibly, this Candide is the best of all possible to date.

Produced in cooperation with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC, this Candide boasts an exceptional cast of talented singer/actors who execute Zimmerman's whimsical and inspired vision to perfection. Backed by a 14-piece orchestra that sounds much fuller, the ensemble of 19 (nine of whom have been with the show for all three productions) takes the audience on an exhilarating non-stop adventure that crackles with a clarity of purpose so vivid that both the humor and poignancy seem revelatory.

The farcical story follows naïve young philosophy student Candide (a tremendously engaging Geoff Packard) as he endures exile, shipwreck, enforced military conscription, imprisonment, volcano, plague, and the Inquisition all on his quest to reunite with his lost love Cunegonde (the delightful Lauren Molina). At each new catastrophe and eye-opening twist of fate, Candide struggles to find comfort in the words of his tutor Pangloss: "If it weren't meant to be, it wouldn't. Everything that is, is good. Therefore, it's the best of all possible worlds."

Through Zimmerman's concise and logically reordered new book - and her ability to incorporate the satiric zaniness of shadow puppets alongside the deeply affecting operatic grandeur of Bernstein's exquisite score - Candide still resonates today. Just as France was on the brink of revolutionary chaos in 1759 and the United States was in the grip of Cold War McCarthyism in 1956, today we eerily face the devastation of earthquakes, tsunamis, economic meltdown, multiple wars, religious and political intolerance, and hypocrisy on many levels. The best of all possible worlds indeed!

Yet, the very optimism that is giddily attacked in Candide ultimately endures and reshapes itself with a poetic pragmatism that is at once prophetic and profound. Stripped of all their wealth and the rose-colored glasses through which a once pampered aristocracy viewed the world, Candide, Cunegonde and the rest of their fellow survivors return to the earth for salvation. They will build their house, and chop their wood, and do the best they know. They will make their garden grow, make their garden grow.

It's almost impossible to describe the torrent of emotion that swells during the finale of this Candide as the full ensemble kneels across the stage in a straight line singing "Make Our Garden Grow." Part prayer, part vow, part plea to the world to stop the madness, it is ultimately a transcendent affirmation of the good of humanity and our genetic imperative to live on. It is a riveting moment full of great majesty and splendor. It is the best "garden" that is ever likely to blossom on stage anywhere.

Cast members are sensational throughout. As Candide, Packard has a rich and warmly penetrating tenor voice that, combined with his superb acting, convey innocence, doubt, goodness and unshakeable will. His early love duet "Oh Happy We" sung with a perfectly self-absorbed and flighty Molina as Cunegonde is as foolishly romantic as his questioning "It Must Be So" is plaintive. Later his "Candide's Lament" expresses abject disillusionment at the thought of having lost Cunegonde forever. In "You Were Dead, You Know," he and Molina again combine to wring light-hearted laughter out of operetta pastiche. Finally, it is Packard's voice and passion that lead the ensemble in the devastatingly beautiful "Make Our Garden Grow."

As Cunegonde, Molina brings a decidedly contemporary look and feel to the part, but she never crosses the line into caricature. Her transformation from a pampered noble to a kidnapped and well kept concubine to a beaten and enslaved washer woman is realistic and deeply moving. Her hilarious, unexpected, and perfectly timed "Glitter and Be Gay" is a tour de force that she imprints indelibly with her own unique stamp. She is magnificent.

Larry Yando as Pangloss is a sincere yet comic philosopher. He strikes a wonderful balance between being faithful and being dim. Erik Lochtefeld makes a deliciously nasty villain Maximilian, the narcissistic brother to Cunegonde who has more than one surprise up his sleeve. As the Governor and other assorted hypocritical power mongers, Timothy John Smith is suitably diabolical and overbearing. His "My Love" also lets him show off his potent basso profundo.

Rebecca Finnegan as the unscrupulous Dutch businesswoman Vanderdendur shines with wicked glee as she leads the ensemble in the cynical "Bon Voyage." McCaela Donovan as the serving girl Paquette adds sprightly sex appeal to early group numbers "Life Is Happiness Indeed," "The Best of All Possible Worlds," and "Universal Good." Cheryl Stern as the Old Lady brings a gruff but twinkling edge to the Klezmer-influenced Flamenco production number "I Am Easily Assimilated." She also lends a knowing worldly wink to the comic girl power duet she sings with Cunegonde, "We Are Women." If Stern's voice isn't quite up to the operatic standards of the rest of the cast, her deft acting is more than adequate compensation.

Daniel Ostling's inventive and transformational scenic design, Mara Blumenfeld's opulent costumes, T. J. Gerckens' evocative lighting design, and Richard Woodbury's clever sound all transport the action from European palaces to the magical utopia of El Dorado to the exotic oceans and jungles and castles in between. Daniel Pelzig's buoyant choreography adds further dimension to Zimmerman's vibrant point of view, and the pitch perfect orchestra under the baton of arranger/orchestrator Doug Peck is so good that it could perform the score as a symphony and convey every nuance in this Bernstein masterpiece.

Candide continues at the Huntington through October 16. By all means seize the opportunity to be transported by this classic made fresh and new. It's a thrilling production that will live in your memory long after it is gone.

PHOTOS by T. Charles Erickson and Liz Lauren: Lauren Molina as Cunegonde and Geoff Packard as Candide; Rebecca Finnegan as Vanderdendur and the ensemble; Larry Yando as Pangloss and Geoff Packard; Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina


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