Theater Review: Goodman Theatre takes on huge challenge with Candide
By Bill Beard
Chicago’s Goodman Theatre has a well-earned national reputation…actually, make that an international reputation…as a successfully experimental, innovative, chance-taking leader in the forefront of American theater artistry. Now, they are celebrating the 10th year of their “Decade on Dearborn,” with another blockbuster production, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, or “Optimism.”
Directed and newly adapted from the original Voltaire by Chicago’s award-winning Mary Zimmerman, Candide is an epic “opera-musical,” and benefits greatly from Ms. Zimmerman’s expertise, which includes her directorial debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 2007. She is an artistic associate at Goodman, a professor of performance with Northwestern University, and has won accolades from coast to coast in the most prestigious theaters in the USA, and abroad with London’s Barbican Centre, home to the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Here again, she has demonstrated her imaginative vision of challenging works, incorporating remarkable technical surprises and twists, a few of which become a bit contrived and somewhat “gimmicky,” but nonetheless impressive.
But let’s look first at the cast. Certainly, one of the most solid performances was that of Chicago’s own Hollis Resnick as the Old Lady. This actress can do absolutely anything [I last saw her as the blonde and bitchy Amber Von Tussle in Marriott’s Hairspray], and she has proven here again that she commands any stage.
Other sterling performances include the popular Larry Yando as Pangloss the tutor, instilling into the young Candide’s simple mind the ultimate optimism that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” [the Leibniz philosophy Voltaire so effectively ridiculed in his original brief novella]; also fine work by Jesse J. Perez as Cacambo, Tom Aulino as Martin, Erik Lochtefeld in his Goodman debut as the pompous Maximilian; and in the role of the charming Queen of El Dorado, the even more charming Tempe Thomas.
For the major roles of lovers Candide and Cunegonda, Goodman brought in the very personable Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina, both recently from the cast of Broadway’s Rock of Ages, reviewed in the New York Times as “…a seriously silly, absurdly enjoyable arena-rock musical.” To transfer from a rock musical directly into Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece is indeed daring. Candide has been done both as a “musical comedy” and as an “operetta.” I own a video of the show, concert style, but with full characterization, as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and a cast of British opera stars. It is brilliant.
However, both of these young performers bring fine talent and experience, and rise to meet the challenge; perhaps not masterfully, but at least pleasantly.
Mr. Packard’s job is less imposing; the score demands less of him, and he handles it well. In addition, his Candide is endearing, and not the callow fledgling he could have become. His sincerity and love, both for his teacher and for the sensual Cunegonde, keep us cheering him on, always hoping he will find that “best of all possible worlds.” Packard’s strong and rather lovely voice serves him well, even in the testier portions of the score.
Ms. Molina, too, brings an absolutely delightful charm to her role. She has an impish allure, a mischievous energy that invokes amusement and joy. Her voice is pleasant enough and flexible, but perhaps not quite up to the demands here. She barely touches the top notes required in “Glitter and be Gay,” the showpiece of the entire score; and one wonders whether perhaps Ms. Zimmerman gave her the extra burden of some clever, but very complicated, costume change business partially to soften the disappointment.
But there is something more fundamentally askew here. Voltaire’s basic, bold satirical attack on 17th century optimism somehow falters, is diverted, or just gets lost in the miasma of all the creative cleverness. Candide’s wanderings around the globe are filled with one hardship after another, each of which brings painful disillusionment and disenchantment; until by the end, though he still reveres his old mentor, Pangloss, he has faced enough of life’s disappointments to adopt a new precept, “we must cultivate our garden.” But in Ms. Zimmerman’s adaptation, we are seldom made aware of any growth or enlightenment within our young hero; he seems to remain oblivious throughout, and even at his decisive climactic moment, we are not sure of what he is feeling, or even if he is. We seem to pass through that moment and go directly into the denouement.
For the most part, Bernstein’s music was still magnificent. But considering the size and magnitude of this overall project, surely the producers should have spent whatever necessary to give the talented Doug Peck as music director more musicians in the pit. He managed very well in most of the performance score, but that Overture just simply cannot be done justice with 12 instruments!
But this is a rare opportunity to see a new adaptation of one of the most challenging musical theater pieces of our day. Do see it.
It runs through Oct. 31. Reserve at (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org.
Editor’s note: Theater Critic Edith McCauley also reviewed Goodman’s production of Candide in the Oct. 6-12, 2010, issue of The Rock River Times. Read her review by clicking here.
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