Goodman’s ‘Candide’ as one possible world

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(c) Liz Lauren

The Old Lady (Hollis Resnik) helps dress Cunegonde (Lauren Molina) as she expresses how to “Glitter and be Gay.”

The Goodman Theatre’s staging of Leonard Bernstein’s ever-problematic musical “Candide,” in a new adaptation by Mary Zimmerman, brings to mind Touchstone’s conflicted assessment of his new life in the country compared with his erstwhile surroundings at court.

In respect that Zimmerman’s rethinking of “Candide” lends new coherence to an ill-formed play, it pleaseth me well; in respect that it still suffers from longueurs and an impression of one joke repeated ad nauseum, ’tis tedious.

In respect that a capable cast of singers manage Bernstein’s vivacious music with enthusiasm, it is charming; in respect that the singers cannot muster the vocal brilliance required of this exacting operetta, I like it not.

In respect that Doug Peck’s distillation of Bernstein’s symphonic score to 12 instruments makes “Candide” possible in the small pit of Goodman’s Albert Theatre, it is admirable; in respect that it is not symphonic, ’tis dull.

“Candide,” drawn from Voltaire’s 18th century novel satirizing religion and other expressions of man’s inhumanity to man, has seen a checkered history since its Broadway premiere in 1956, the year before “West Side Story.” In the mid-‘70s, Lillian Hellman’s original book for the show was jettisoned in favor of Hugh Wheeler’s spin on Voltaire’s story. And a long string of lyricists extends from Richard Wilbur and Dorothy Parker to Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein himself.

The wry tale seems a natural for musical comedy. Candide, a young man of common birthright raised in an aristocratic household, has grown up under the tutelage of the optimistic philosopher Pangloss, who rationalizes every misfortune, small or catastrophic, as confirmation that this is the best of all possible worlds.

Candide also falls in love with Cunegonde, daughter of the master of the house, and gets himself promptly cast out into the rude world when he asks for permission to marry the girl. Candide’s endless tribulations, fomented mainly by the wickedness of his fellow men and the perversity of clerics, form the heart and substance of the show.

An unbuttoned farce involving a large cast, “Candide” abounds with witty songs and, certainly in this production, wacky gags. Designer Daniel Ostling’s cartoonish unit set, with its toy ships and rolling cardboard seas, stylized cannon and well-used trap doors, underscores the caprice and helps to keep characters and audience off balance, sometimes literally.

And Mara Blumenfeld’s vividly imaginative costumes accentuate bright hope as well as bleakness as Candide (Geoff Packard as the very model of dogged optimism) perseveres through one daunting escapade after another.

If the best of all possible worlds is one full of friends, Candide has reason for cheer: It seems like old home week whichever direction he drifts. And from Lauren Molina’s sweet-voiced, splendidly comedic Cunegonde to Larry Yando’s durably affirmative Dr. Pangloss, this beleaguered pilgrim’s friends are true, and truly funny. Include in that band are Erik Lochtefeld as Cunegonde’s straight-laced (but emphatically laced) brother Maximilian and Hollis Resnik’s hilariously earthy Old Lady, whose sly romp through “I Am Easily Assimilated” stops the show.

The inevitable problem with “Candide,” which not even Zimmerman’s streamlining can avoid, is that its clever parts begin to feel redundant. (The downstage trap door may wear out before this production ends its run.) At three hours, it is too much of a modest thing. The Goodman’s riotous “Animal Crackers” was no less crazy than “Candide,” but it felt tighter. (I’m still wondering how that elephant got into Capt. Spaulding’s pajamas.)

Not the least troublesome is the miniaturized orchestration. Bernstein’s effervescent score, echoing Rossini and Johann Strauss, needs to glitter. It’s too great a challenge for a wind sextet and a handful of strings. While there’s something to be said for the Albert Theatre's intimacy, you know from the overture’s first pale flourish that it’s going to be an oddly quiet night in the pit.

Through Oct. 31. www.GoodmanTheatre.org. (312) 443-3800.