Like Voltaire’s indomitable hero, “Candide” is forever bouncing back, a perennial fixer-upper with the sturdy bones of Leonard Bernstein’s finest score.
The latest version just opened at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.
Candide (Geoff Packard, blond as a beach bum), the bastard son of a Baron’s sister, has made the mistake of falling in love with Cunegonde, daughter of his ward.
He’s promptly cast out of their Westphalian castle, leaving behind not only his sweetheart but his teacher, old Dr. Pangloss (twinkle-eyed Larry Yando).
The doctor’s philosophy -- that we live in “the best of all possible worlds” -- is the true object of Voltaire’s scorn.
Candide quickly learns through cruel experience that optimism is a sham. He sees the world, Old and New; experiences the horrors of war, the devastation of treachery, the terror of the Inquisition and the mythic glory of El Dorado.
Cunegonde, raped, enslaved, sold, dressed up and just as often undressed, navigates her own trail of tears before she and Candide are finally united, much older and much wiser, after having sung a ton of great songs.
Mary Zimmerman’s jaunty, beautifully realized staging of the show in Washington delivers pure pleasure for the ears and eyes. While her productions for the Metropolitan Opera have been disastrously self-conscious, she’s found the right style here.
Cunegunde sings “Glitter and Be Gay” in a bubble bath, chirping those high E-flats like so much bird song. Vivacious soprano Lauren Molina continues singing as she is corseted and adorned for yet another evening’s festivities.
Beginning with the 1956 premiere of “Candide,” Bernstein shared billing with Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur, Dorothy Parker, John Latouche and Stephen Sondheim through revisions of its whimsical if ungainly script and score.
Zimmerman cajoled Bernstein’s heirs into letting her slip more Voltaire into the book, including some raunchy material deemed fit for readers in 1759 but not for theatergoers 200 years later.
As if Voltaire’s biting satire wasn’t enough to connect with a contemporary audience, she misguidedly encourages mugging, particularly by Molina. Yet there is some magic as well, when, for example, toy soldiers are poured from one bucket to another, suggesting the anonymity of war.
Set designer Daniel Ostling surrounds the stage with three high, oak-paneled walls; from the two on the sides spring balconies and signs to suggest place. The crystalline lighting by T. J. Gerckens gives them depth, and the costumes by Mara Blumenfeld track the characters’ rising and falling fortunes, notably Pangloss’s sumptuous robe, eventually reduced, like the man himself, to tatters.
Despite occasionally mushy playing of a demanding score, Doug Peck conducted with verve.
Among a host of superb performances, the standouts are Hollis Resnik, whose shtick perfectly fits the Old Lady who loses a buttock, and Jesse J. Perez as the resilient Cacambo.
Yet it’s the music that matters, from the brass fanfare that launches the thrilling overture, to the gorgeous chorale “Make Our Garden Grow” that brings the lovers’ journey to its poignant end.
“Candide,” Sondheim writes in “Finishing the Hat,” has “the most scintillating set of songs yet written for the musical theater.” No argument there.
Through Jan. 9 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington. Information: +1-202-547-1122; http://www.shakespearetheatre.org Rating: ***
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(Jeremy Gerard is a theater critic and editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)