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Through Bad Sound and Fury
Emerges Pure Joy

Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Richard Wilbur plus Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein, original book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler, newly adapted from Voltaire by Mary Zimmerman.
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Harmon Hall, Washington, D.C.,
Wednesday, Dec 8, 2010, (seats D–120&121, center stalls, first row)
Directed by Mary Zimmerman

I had determined early in the first act that I would not write this review. How can I give a fair assessment when I couldn't hear the singing? Seated in the front row, right above the orchestra well, we heard more brass than soprano, and even the cello drowned out the tenors (good cellist, by the way: Kerry van Laanen). Later, I realized the actors were miked. Were we too far forward to be in the auditorium's aural field? Was it bad sound-mixing up in the booth? Further evidence suggested the latter as, in the second half, one singer faded in and out of audibility.

All of this is important to note for two reasons: one is as both a criticism of the theater and a disclosure of my being handcuffed in writing this; two, the mere fact I'm writing this is evidence of how much I want to share the joy of this Candide.

The turning point for me came with the song “Glitter and Be Gay.” Starting in a bubble bath, Lauren Molina as Cunegonde sang this song while transitioning from bathtub to towel to underwear (behind a screen) and to various stages of dressing to the final 18th century–courtesan's dress. Scaling to the highest of high notes while a servant was tightening Molina's girdle was both funny and pure art in the hands—and vocal chords—of a talented actress.

Thus was this whole production. Director Mary Zimmerman, while keeping Bernstein's songs intact (though rearranging their places in the plot) went to Voltaire's original novel for her adaptation. She struck a suitable balance between the silliness of successive situations that Candide (Geoff Packard) encounters—with his ever-optimistic response to all the tragedies that befall him—and the underlying seriousness of those tragedies and the society that brings them about. Company-wide, precision-perfect acting in both the speeches and songs kept Candide on an even keel in its journey through such absurdities as red sheep, improbable reunions, and more killed characters coming back to life than a 30-year-runnnig soap opera. Zimmerman used tableaus, model ships, toy towns, and even a tiny balloon dangling a herd of red sheep, plus a rotating chorus of narrators, to bring the globe-trotting story and its plot turns of wars, earthquakes, and pirate raids effectively to the stage (she used the same devices, notably the model ships, in Shakespeare's Pericles that we saw at STC in 2004).

Throughout this journey, Voltaire's thesis on the spirit of individual men and women trumping the spectrum of religious, political, and philosophical dogma—the various “isms” society imposes on people—is played out with satirical humor. Until the very end: then, in the production's crowning climax with the song “Make Our Garden Grow,” the entire company joined the principles on a flower-sprouting stage and, on their knees, lifted the roof as an orchestra-less chorale on the final refrain. Nothing satirically humorous about that moment; our smiles were those of genuine joy.

A show we'd like to see again—but seats further back, please.

Eric Minton
December 10, 2010

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