Goodman’s ‘Candide’ attempts to solve a muddled masterpiece

Jesse Perez, Geoff Packard, Lauren Molina and Hollis Resnik contemplate this best of all possible worlds in Goodman’s “Candide.”

First things first: I’ve never experienced a live production of Candide before last night. However, I’m familiar with Leonard Bernstein’s score (it’s one of my faves — I’ve four different recordings of the show in my collection), and I’ve watched the DVD of the 2005 concert starring Kristin Chenoweth and Patti LuPone once or twice.

But Goodman’s highly-anticipated production, helmed by creative mastermind Mary Zimmerman, was a first for me.

I understand the operetta has a troubled history, with blame largely placed on the show’s convoluted book. Many other productions have tried to solve this by Frankensteining various incarnations of the show together, without much success.

However, Goodman had a leg up. As Candide music director Doug Peck told me a few months ago, Zimmerman had creative license to redo the thing entirely from scratch (while keeping the score intact, of course). I’m assuming her goal was to help clarify and streamline things while bringing some emotional truth to the piece.

I wish I could say that’s the case. I was still rather confused as to what was happening to whom (and why) over the sprawling three hour odyssey. So many characters and stories muddled together. I needed Cliffs Notes.

My theatre companion had starred in a production of Candide at DePaul a few years ago, so he knows the show, in one of its original iterations, well. I lean on his expertise to tell you that this production doesn’t solve much in the way of clarity. At times, the plot gets so out of control, Zimmerman turns to a series of narrators to help move things along. As for streamlining, all I know is poor Paquette has been reduced to a background character in the first scene.

But while this is a fine, visually appealing production, it’s a shame that it’s all fussied up with distracting stage business. Take for example Cunegonde’s aria, “Glitter and Be Gay.” Poor Lauren Molina (who is really overworking her soprano here, but remains winning nonetheless) is tasked to move from a bathtub to a nearly abusive corset fitting to putting on stockings and jewels, and then shimmy into a period dress, including all the underthings that go under such a thing. All this while singing one of the hardest songs written for a soprano. At the end of the number, Molina didn’t look so much reignited than she did relieved to get through it all. As she should.

So, I guess it’s a given that the show’s a convoluted beast that not even a creative genius like Zimmerman can pin down. Thankfully we still have that score.

Peck had his work cut out for him in reducing Bernstein’s masterpiece to 12 pieces. Overall, it sounds lovely, though, the overture really demands more brass (and there were some odd things happening in the pit in that first thrilling number). But, after that, things get much better, and the chorus sounds strong and full — especially in the glorious final number, “Make Our Garden Grow.”

As Candide, Geoff Packard has a pure, easy voice. Easy on the eyes, too. And the always reliable Hollis Resnik offers a smart and pragmatic take on the odd Old Lady.

I think this production has the potential to be something amazing, but it needs more time to find its footing. I felt like some scenes were sketches of ideas that hadn’t been fully developed. Currently, it’s a beautiful, entertaining and frustrating experience. Is it the best of all possible worlds? Not exactly, but a worthy one.

“Candide” runs through Oct. 31 at the Goodman Theatre. More info here >

Bonus: here’s the multi-talented Lauren Molina (with Jesse J. Perez) doing a cover of “Easily Assimilated” backstage at the Goodman:

8 thoughts on “Goodman’s ‘Candide’ attempts to solve a muddled masterpiece

  1. I feel like Candide is an almost impossible task to undertake. I’d be curious to know more about the reasoning behind certain choices with the rewriting of the dialogue in this production. But I felt exactly how you did- that those ideas were not well flushed out, and that it needed some more time to simmer. The one thing that did work for me was the end going into Make Our Garden Grow. But she brought everyone else back- where was poor Paquette? ;)

    It’s just a personal opinion too, but I always feel like it’s a piece that calls for grandiosity in the production to match the convolutedness (Is that a word) of the story. I do think Zimmerman is fantastically clever though.

    I’m also a new Hollis Resnik fan! :)

    1. Hi Herb. I think having all those narrators blandly telling us stuff was kind of a cop-out, didn’t you? And apparently Voltaire is a character in one of the versions of the show? Craziness.

      And yay for Hollis Resnik love. She didn’t really get a chance to showcase her voice — seems the score was either really high or really low for her.

      1. Sort of- except how in the world would you explain all the crazy exploits succinctly otherwise? It was already 3 hours- maybe we would have been there until 10AM this morning if there were no narrators?

    1. I know, right? How can that be? Sad. :( We must meet up for a glass (or three) on a no-show night and make an evening of it!

  2. Voltaire is INDEED a narrator in one version of the show – In fact, it’s the one version I’ve seen. I saw it (back in 94 or 95) at Interlochen Arts Camp… and Voltaire was played by none other than Barrett Foa.

    However, it’s a jumbly mess of a show that is much better suited to concerts.

  3. I thought It was a great performance. There are so many haters. Why don’t you create a better version of Candide. The story is not easy to follow, but hey, that’s the point. Life is full of contradictions. You have to look past that and see it for what it is worth – the beauty of life itself. That’s the message of this enduring work. If you can’t get it, life will always disappoint you. If you can, you can and will flourish.

    The winner is life itself.

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