Guest blog review: Bernstein's 'Candide' at DC's Shakespeare Theatre Company
An ornate but claustrophobic parlor, confined to center stage by black curtains, opens Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s fluid, timely production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington. “Candide” is the first musical STC has produced since 1989.
Decorative curtains and a low-hanging chandelier squeeze the young, naïve Candide and his materialistic adoptive sister, Cunegonde, into the small space surrounding a drawing room table.
They alternately shoot up from their chairs and – in liberated bursts – sing that they live “in the best of all possible worlds,” a note from the book of their tutor, Pangloss, an optimist with a capital “O.”
No sooner do Cunegonde and Candide profess their love to each other than this insulated room simultaneously explodes and collapses. The decorative interior curtains fall to the floor while the black stage curtains pull away to reveal an empty, wood-paneled expanse that occupies the depth and breadth of the stage.
The parquet floor and each of the three monotone walls, as high as Sidney Harman Hall’s stage will allow, appear to be bonded so tightly together that
barely a sliver of light can enter the room Candide now occupies, alone. But in Zimmerman’s musical, a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, this room is the world.
And the space is not impenetrable. Hidden doors and windows swing from the walls, cracks split open between the panels, the rear wall partially slides away to show the sea, and people pop up from holes in the floor.
Our hero is suddenly not trapped in solitary. He sails around the globe in this space with new and old companions. The room becomes Europe and South America, a battlefield and a brothel, Hell and Eden.
Candide’s room and its shifting set accessories – by designer Daniel Ostling (who was Tony nominated in 2002 for “Metamorphoses,” the same show for which Zimmerman won her directing Tony) – are the glue that holds the enchanting Goodman/STC production together.
The set symbolizes the rigid, close-minded philosophies and religions that Voltaire satirized in the 18th-Century novel on which the musical is based, represents Candide’s own malleable worldview, and – perhaps most importantly – is critical in maintaining the production’s satisfying pace.
With a run time of 2 hours, 45 minutes the show risks plodding. Yet the ensemble effortlessly shapes their surroundings into the globe-jumping plot’s quickly changing locales with little more than brooms to sweep up the mess that the previous place left behind. And Candide often encounters – and causes – quite a mess.
Glue, of course, is worthless unless it holds valuable pieces together. Zimmerman’s production, which runs through Jan. 9, is made up of many valuable pieces.
Bernstein’s score, which he improved upon for decades, is bright, varied and well performed by conductor Doug Peck and the 11-person orchestra. If not for the show’s dark undercurrents, the music of Candide would surely have become as recognizable as West Side Story, the composer’s most popular musical.
The cast is also solid. Lauren Molina’s Conegunde is many things: Charming, pitiable, haughty, conniving, redeemed. Molina’s vocal control and acting prowess allow her to ably convey all of these characteristics and more. Geoff Packard acts and sings Candide convincingly – and with relish – but is occasionally overshadowed in duets with Molina.
The ensemble, many acting multiple roles and narrating transitions, delivers. There are moments – which mostly involve Erik Lochtefeld as Cunegonde’s pompous pedophile of a brother, Larry Yando as Pangloss and Jesse J. Perez as Candide’s sidekick Cacambo – where the show’s tone is uncertain and the characters’ behaviors border on slapstick. The Old Lady, played by the gifted Hollis Resnik, is also guilty of creating occasional off-balance moods, but she is also responsible for most of the laugh out loud moments.
The tableaus Zimmmerman creates with her actors are natural and their movements engaging: Candide and his companions roll in perfect unison about the hull of a ship on stormy seas; Candide, Cacambo and Cunegonde raptly listen to the Old Lady’s epic life history, like kindergarteners at story time, in a fast-paced abridgment of the crew’s crossing of the Atlantic.
All the while, however, Zimmerman’s characters are encased within the wood-paneled walls of their ideologies and biases. Only in the final scene, when the characters unite in dismantling some of society’s dysfunctional constructs, does the room open – finally – and reveal a new, empty horizon.
-- STEVE KILAR
GRAPHIC FROM SHAKESPEARE THEATRE COMPANY