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October 19, 2010

Candide takes too many pages out of its own book

Towards the beginning of Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Candide playing at the Goodman Theatre, the play’s namesake is presented on an empty stage that represents the world he knows, as well as those he will journey, to see which one is truly the best. Candide is the story of a journey of discovery, and the audience (although presumably less naïve than Candide) is along for the ride to learn (or relearn) some of his lessons.

Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation is a new one: Unhappy with the previous stagings of the show, she wished to create a more faithful adaptation of Voltaire’s novella and sought permission to write her own book for the show, which she based on the original text. In the end, this ended up being an almost word-for-word adaptation.

But stage and book are different mediums that require different approaches. Even those who lament Hollywood’s tendency to adapt novels to film wouldn’t like to see a word for word translation, because what then would be the point of making a film?

Unfortunately, this is what Zimmerman has done with Candide. In her zeal to stay true to the original, she has created a three-hour-long performance (with one short intermission) that contains no departures from the novella. The play becomes repetitive and tiresome after a couple of hours, when characters who were supposed to be dead are not actually dead for about the fifth time and the tenth new character has been talking about how unfortunate he is.

In the book, it's not necessary to take all of this seriously, as the naïve Candide is less of a rounded character and more of a tool Voltaire uses to make a point. When staged, however, Candide becomes more flesh-and-blood. While his story becomes more real and visceral, all the repetitions and coincidences that were part of the novel make the play drag.

That is not to say that the production wasn’t enjoyable—it was even funny. The staging is as witty and fast-paced as the novel, capturing the humor of the original and its satire of aristocracy, philosophy, optimism, pessimism, and bureaucracy. The actors are phenomenal both at acting and singing: Geoff Packard was exquisite as the naïve Candide, as was Lauren Molina as Cunegonde.

Despite the new interpretation, the performance contained all of composer Leonard Bernstein’s music, from the uplifting overture to the witty and incredibly funny “I Am Easily Assimilated” to the final “Let Our Garden Grow.” In fact, the ratio of the music to everything else was very low, with the songs stringing together long sequences of plot.

The funny bits came from the novel, of course (with some witty additions coming from Bernstein’s lyrics), but they were found in the midst of long tales and digressions.

In the end, it’s the same experience as reading the novel. So if you’d rather go to a show than plod your way through Voltaire’s French, then you probably won’t have missed anything. But if you have read the book, you might find the performance all too familiar and slightly too long.

Still, the music and humor compensate for the repetitiveness, making for an overall enjoyable experience if you’re willing to sit through the dull bits. As for me, I think I’ll take Voltaire’s advice and go “make my garden grow,” either by doing what the story teaches and cultivating my intellect, or by simply planting the flower seeds that came as an advertisement for the show.

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