Review: Candide at The Shakespeare Theatre

The Thinker by Rodin

In 1766, a “German doctor named Ralph” published a satirical story that pummeled a popular meme of its time, voiced by luminaries like Alexander Pope that “whatever is, is right.” The German doctor’s book Candide sold thirty thousand copies of in the first year alone, despite being banned by the Catholic Church. No one was fooled who its author was, because Voltaire’s style was unmistakable. His slim story of the naive young man Candide and his adventures in the imperfect and usually hellish world of man he encountered outside of the kingdom of Westphalia became perhaps the world’s second best known satire, after Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Nearly two centuries later, the late composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein turned the work into an opera. Perhaps it was good that Bernstein was a Jew, because had it been written by a Catholic even all these years later the Vatican might have labeled him an apostate.

As a composer, Bernstein is best known for West Side Story. Candide was an opera that he kept perfecting until his death. “There is more of me in that piece than anything I have ever done,” he once told a friend. Bernstein recorded this final variation (which I own) in 1989, just a year before his death. Candide is probably his finest work in the musical/opera genre.

Unfortunately, as operas and musicals go, Candide is produced only infrequently, perhaps because its irreverent themes still offend some sensitive souls. Which means if you love the opera and it is staged, you have to see it. Saturday night my family and I ventured into Washington D.C. to see it performed at The Shakespeare Theatre’s new venue, The Sydney Harman Hall, just across the street from The Verizon Center.

Candide is something of a stretch for The Shakespeare Theatre, both because it is not a Shakespearean play and also because it is a musical. While Sydney Harman Hall is a larger and prettier venue than its old digs around the corner, it is still small enough so there is not much room for an orchestral pit. What you get with Candide is a mini-orchestra of twelve. Fewer instruments means each instrument must carry more weight. The result is that the orchestra was uneven at times, resulting in occasionally wobbly or slightly off-key notes. Once the overture was over and the performance started, it was easier to tune out orchestral imperfections because, as with almost everything The Shakespeare Theatre does, this production is first rate.

Granted that when staging a satire, the characters tend to be one dimensional. Candide of course is specifically named because he is so innocent and naive, but all the characters in the opera are stereotypes. However, most are very funny stereotypes. The hardest part in the show may be Candide’s (played by Geoff Packard) because he is about as interesting a character as off white is an interesting wall color.

In a show like this, there is no point fussing with elaborate or frequently changing scenery, so the director did not bother. Rather, a wood paneled stage is quickly revealed after the first scene. Filled with numerous side doors, windows and trap doors it allows a metaphorical play to briskly unfold. Most of the actors play many roles, so it can be hard to remember who is who.

If you are not familiar with the plot, then do not expect it to make any sense. Candide and his cohorts are unwilling ping pongs blown hither and tither by misfortune largely inflicted by their fellow men. Characters surely dead mysteriously come back to life. This results in some of the strangest lyrics to ever make it into an opera house, like these between Candide and his heartthrob, the beautiful but vacuous Cunegonde (Lauren Molina). Even with lyrics as weird as these, Bernstein manages to wrap them around beautiful, if not exquisite music:

Candide: Dearest how can this be so? You were dead, you know. You were shot and bayoneted, too.

Cunegonde: That is very true. Oh, but love will find a way.

Candide: Then, what did you do?

Cunegonde: We’ll go into that another day. Now let’s talk of you.

While Candide was written solely by Voltaire (whose tomb I had the privilege of visiting in 2006), in its musical incarnation it has had many authors. Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim are among those who helped refine the lyrics. Like the musical Chess, directors apparently assume they have permission to tinker with the opera. For this production, director Mary Zimmerman contributed new dialogue and, I suspect, new plot elements. Maximilian (Erik Lochtefeld) was always something of a dandy, but now he is a pedophile as well. Erik is terrific as Maximilian; when he talks it is hard not to at least titter. Lauren Molina plays Cunegonde with tremendous energy and sprightliness. Professor Pangloss (Larry Yando) is as close as this opera comes to having a lead supporting actor, and is gloriously myopic with his assertion that we live in the best of all possible worlds, even absurdly right before he is about to hang. (I feel the same way about those who believe in American exceptionalism. I guess we live in the best of all possible countries.) Hollis Resnik is also memorable as the one-buttocked Old Lady.

Voltaire, the many lyricists, director Mary Zimmerman, choreographer Daniel Pelzig and many others will render these many naivities absurd through the backdrop of Bernstein’s glorious music. I believe that the only thing that has kept Candide from being one of our greatest musicals is it offends the feelings and dignity of many of the virtuous among us. Bernstein’s music is often lustrous and glorious, and the aria “Glitter and Be Gay” (9.8MB MP3) surely would compete well against some of Verdi or Mozart’s most memorable arias.

Bernstein considered Candide an opera. I say it is more of a musical. It is surprisingly long (just over three hours with intermission), and it has many spoken areas to connect the many songs. Whether opera or musical, fans of either genre should hustle to The Shakespeare Theater to see this delightful rendition before it folds. It is full of laughter and glorious absurdity, leaving few unskewered, either metaphorically or on the stage. It is a musical about mankind’s not so glorious derriere, but so well done you will be moving in for a close proctological view.

See Candide while you can. Satire has rarely been done better.