Candide Credit: Liz Lauren

Candide Goodman Theatre

In Voltaire’s 1759 novella, Candide, the eponymous hero stumbles into El Dorado, the legendary Incan city of gold that enticed and eluded Spanish explorers for centuries. There, for a brief time, he finds a perfect way of life, free from war, disease, greed, and priests.

For decades, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide has been the El Dorado of musical theater: the masterpiece that’s frustrated attempts by some of show business’s finest artists to do it justice. As Bernstein noted in 1989, “The challenge to us was to dramatize and musicalize the stinging satire of Candide, without turning it into burlesque.” Since the show’s unsuccessful Broadway premiere in 1956, various theatrical conquistadors—including Bernstein himself—have sought to balance the score’s frothy wit with the cruelty of Voltaire’s story about a naive German youth who travels the globe trying to reconcile his misfortunes with the absurd axiom of his tutor, Dr. Pangloss, that “all’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” The official Bernstein website calls it, justifiably, the “most labored-over show in theater history.”

Mary Zimmerman’s new production for the Goodman Theatre isn’t a total triumph, but it comes far closer to reaching El Dorado than any of the seven Candides I’ve encountered so far. Her adaptation draws substantially on Voltaire’s book, fusing cutting comedy with philosophical gravity. She captures the wonderful simplicity of Voltaire’s writing—which recounts the characters’ atrocious sufferings with deadpan irony—and gives new clarity to the songs’ witty lyrics.

Candide was conceived by Bernstein and Lillian Hellman in 1953 as a satire on McCarthyism. Blacklisted by Hollywood for her leftist sympathies, Hellman saw Voltaire’s depiction of the Catholic Inquisition’s brutal pursuit of heretics as a metaphor for the anticommunist witch hunts of her own time. For Bernstein, the book additionally represented an opportunity to compose what he later called a “love letter to European music”—a stretch for a composer best known for his modernist, jazz-influenced scores for ballet (Fancy Free), Broadway (On the Town and Wonderful Town), and film (On the Waterfront).

Though Bernstein’s score was widely admired, it was ill-matched by Hellman’s humorless, heavy-handed script, which emphasized the most misanthropic aspects of Voltaire’s tale. Director Tyrone Guthrie later confessed that the lavish 1956 production “skipped along with the effortless grace of a freight train heavy-laden on a steep gradient.” Its cast of 43 made it costly for Broadway, especially considering the subject matter. After all, in 1956, most musicals didn’t address war, rape, murder, torture, genocide, and religious intolerance—certainly not in a single evening.

Over the next couple decades Candide popped up in concert versions, including two directed here in 1967 and ’68 by Sheldon Patinkin. In 1973, Harold Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Hugh Wheeler cooked up an entirely new model that proved to be a Broadway hit. Prince’s concept was to turn the show into a circus, with the audience munching on peanuts while the actors romped through the seating area like clowns. It was a bawdy, bumptious production that ran roughshod over Bernstein’s score. Prince and Wheeler later tweaked it for opera companies, removing some of the coarser comedy and giving the music its due. The “opera house version” has been further tinkered with by the Scottish Opera and Britain’s Royal National Theatre, while Bernstein himself conducted a “definitive” concert rendition in London in 1989. In the years since Bernstein’s 1990 death, Chicago audiences have been offered stagings of the Prince adaptation by Court Theatre, Lyric Opera, Light Opera Works, and Porchlight Music Theatre. None has been entirely successful, due mainly to the shortcomings of Wheeler’s script.

Zimmerman’s Candide doesn’t play like yet another “revisal” of the Bernstein show. Rather, it feels like a new adaptation that happens to feature songs by Leonard Bernstein. Unlike previous adaptations, Zimmerman’s script embraces the episodic quality of Voltaire’s story, whose improbable plot takes Candide from Germany (where his love, Cunegonde, is raped and skewered by soldiers) to Lisbon (where he survives an earthquake, runs afoul of the Inquisition, and is reunited with the surprisingly resilient Cunegonde) and from there to the New World, Constantinople, and finally a little farm, where he puts aside his philosophical pretensions and sets about the real work of making his garden grow.

The great triumph of this production, which features musical direction by Doug Peck, is the balance it achieves between script and score. The songs are very well delivered by performers who possess lovely voices, excellent articulation, and an actor’s sense of why the character is singing. Cunegonde’s aria, “Glitter and Be Gay,” is especially successful in this regard. In this devilishly demanding showstopper, Cunegonde—at this point the mistress of both a Jewish banker and a Catholic inquisitor—alternately bemoans her status as a well-kept whore and celebrates the beautiful jewels her debauchery earns her. Singing while she’s being laced into a corset, soprano Lauren Molina approaches the number as both a dramatic soliloquy and a coloratura showpiece, allowing the comedy to emerge from the character’s contradictions. When she and Candide (the fine Geoff Packard) are reunited, their lyrical duet “You Were Dead, You Know,” comes across as a sincere conversation, not an opportunity for operatic parody.

Zimmerman spreads the storytelling duties among her 19-member ensemble rather than hand them all over to Panglosss, as others have. But the philosopher—portrayed with sweet befuddlement by Larry Yando—is still an essential character here, insistently championing his optimistic worldview even as he’s being hanged as a heretic, manning an oar as a slave on a Turkish ship, or losing his nose to syphilis. Zimmerman gives equal weight, though, to Pangloss’s opposite number, the cynic Martin (a deliciously sour Tom Aulino).

Inhabiting the middle ground between these two men is Cunegonde’s duenna, the Old Lady—played with an engaging blend of buoyancy and resignation by Hollis Resnik—who, after recounting a series of horrible misfortunes that include having half her butt cut off and devoured, delivers the story’s true moral. “I love life,” she says, surprised at her own, very human instinct to survive no matter what. It’s the plainspoken wisdom of that statement that carries the day in Zimmerman’s finely tuned, surefooted new spin on Bernstein’s elusive classic.