REVIEW: Candide (Goodman Theatre)

Zimmerman fills stage with playful imagery

 

Candide at Goodman Theatre - Rebecca Finnegan, Govind Kumar, Erik Lochtefeld, Margo Seibert, Geoff Packard, Lauren Molina

   
Goodman Theatre presents
   
Candide
   
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Based on novella by Voltaire
Adapted and Directed by Mary Zimmerman
at Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through October 31  | 
tickets: $25-$85   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Mary Zimmerman is the mastermind behind The Goodman Theatre’s new musical production of Candide. The Tony-award winner not only directed the epic, whose plot literally spans years and oceans, but she also adapted the script. Normally, I’m not a fan of one person having such a heavy hand in the development of a drama. Having a  separate writer and director has major benefits, namely the benefit of distance from the work. And it is this distance that can fix any glaring errors in the script or add directorial nuances to strengthen the production.

Geoff Packard as Candide in Goodman Theatre production - Photo by Liz LaurenFortunately, Zimmerman has crafted a cohesive, entertaining and visually stunning piece of work. Thanks to her affinity for levity, Zimmerman saves Voltaire’s classic philosophical narrative from becoming crushed under the weight of its own ideology. I’m amazed that such a sprawling script and dense story can be so digestible.

Candide begins peacefully enough, with Candide (Geoff Packard), a young lad of unremarkable lineage, studying with blue-blooded siblings Cunegonde (Lauren Molina) and Maximilian (Erik Lochtefeld). They are learning metaphysics from their instructor Pangloss (Larry Yando), whose core belief is that this world is the best of all possible worlds. Although wonderfully optimistic, his mantra is also incredibly naïve, a fact that Candide soon learns.

Once the Baron (Tom Aulino) discovers his daughter, Cunegonde, passionately throwing herself at Candide, the young boy is banished (and we witness a scene transition that is surreal as it is stunning). Now Candide is on his own; caught in the middle of war-torn Europe with only Pangloss’ feeble-minded philosophy to guide him from one atrocity to another.

The play does Voltaire’s work justice. Zimmeran does a wonderful job highlighting the short-sightedness of optimism in the face of pervasive human tragedy. For example, the musical’s darkly humorous number “Auto-da-fe,” a song about a town’s eagerness to witness public executions, is instilled with a playful, cartoonish enthusiasm that makes the capital deaths that much more disturbing.

Jesse Perez and Geoff Packard in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Candide is also very funny. For instance, there’s a running gag with a flock of red sheep, which, although a little silly, provides some light-heartedness to a play that is otherwise filled with people getting maimed and mutilated. There are also some subtle gags, like the use of miniatures to convey the scene’s setting. In one scene in particular, Candide and his travel companions face a storm while at sea. Although the stage does not resemble a boat at all, an actor moves a small boat on a pole to illustrate the tossing and turning of the vessel as Candide and others rock back and forth in unison.

The acting is solid with noteworthy performances from Packard, Yando and Hollis Resnik as the charming and crass Old Lady. Although some performers may fall short of their notes here and there, the singing is still remarkable, considering the amount of energy and endurance that this play requires. Stand out numbers include the hilarious “I Am Easily Assimilated” and the show closer “Make Our Garden Grow.”

Daniel Ostling’s set design is minimal but striking. A large wood-paneled wall occupies all of stage right where secret compartments allow characters and props to easily enter and exit. Trapdoors are used generously, which extends the world of the play farther beyond the extraordinarily roomy stage.

Hollis Resnick and Lauren Molina in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Hollis Resnick in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren
Erik Lochtefeld as Maximillian in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Tom Aulina and Geoff Packard in Candide Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren Larry Yand and Geoff Packard in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren

Despite all these positives, there is one flaw to Zimmerman’s work that I cannot overlook. By being so close to this production, she has blinded herself to the fact that by infusing Candide with so much comedic sentiment, she guts the characters of relatable qualities. Actors often indicate rather than act and sport affectations that comment on the work rather than serving as part of the work. In making these characters merely pawns in a farce, we aren’t really invested in them, and thus the stakes for Candide to eventually find his lost love Cunegonde are set so low that we really don’t care whether they’re reunited or not.

Still, Voltaire’s work isn’t so much about separated lovers as it is a commentary on the contemporary philosophies of his day. And Zimmerman’s work is effective at bringing Voltaire’s talent for satire to life. So this drawback does not overshadow the fact that Candide is a very good play, not necessarily the best of all possible plays, but a good play nonetheless.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina in Candide at Goodman Theatre - photo by Liz Lauren

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REVIEW: Lyric Opera’s “The Merry Widow”

 Shopping around for a second husband can be so much fun!

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The Lyric Opera of Chicago presents:

The Merry Widow

Libretto by Viktor León and Leon Stein
Based on Henri Meilhac’s comedy “L’attache’ d’ambassade”
English lyrics and dialogue by Sheldon Harnick
Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume
Stage directed by Gary Griffin
Thru January 16th 

Review by Katy Walsh

mw9 Boy loves girl. Family won’t let him marry her because she’s penniless. She marries another and becomes a wealthy widow. Boy still loves girl. Now, his country wants him to  marry her because she has 20 million francs. Girl loves boy but fears he loves her for her money. Add in a cheating wife, French lover, overbearing Baron and dancing girls and the results are the Lyric Opera of Chicago presents The Merry Widow. Originally produced in German in 1905, The Merry Widow is sung in English as an operetta in three acts.

Arguably, an operetta basically stands for “opera lite.” Tastes great, less filling. With its origins in the 1800’s, an operetta introduced a less dramatic version of opera to audiences. Utilizing comedy, simpler plots and happier tunes, the operetta became the precursor to contemporary musicals. For diehard opera fans, an operetta is like drinking Miller Lite when you prefer a Guinness. For opera newbies, an operetta is like sipping your first beer to acquire a taste for hops. For all, The Merry Widow is a lively romantic comedy presented with all the grandeur and majesty as is the Lyric Opera hallmark.

 

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Unlike most traditional operas, The Merry Widow has segments of spoken dialogue, dancing sequences and informal familiarity. Breaking the fourth wall, Roger Honeywell (Count Danilo Danilovich) emphasizes a joke by guffawing with the audience. Honeywell, along with Jeff Dumas (Njegus) and Dale Travis (Baron Mirko Zeta), set the playful mood with physical comedy. A particularly fun musical dance number, “Every Woman,” has several of the male cast members commiserating on how difficult women are. Later, it’s the ladies’ turn with dance hall girls performing the Can-Can, a line dance complete with pulled up skirts and leg shaking. Elizabeth Futral (Hanna Glawari) has the vibrant presence to carry the main title The Merry Widow. Although she captivates the audience with her soprano precision, there are moments for her and Honeywell where vocal subtlety is overwhelmed by the orchestra.

From the moment the curtain rises, the audience is treated to spectacular sets (Daniel Ostling). The first act is built around a magnificent staircase, several stories high. Later the scene at Maxim’s features a moving stage on stage within a bi-level dance hall. The costumes (David Burke and Mara Blumenfeld) range from early 1900 elegant aristocrat to vibrant gawdy Can-Can dancer. Visually appealing and lighthearted amusing, this production shows how much fun shopping around for a second husband can be.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

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Review: Lookingglass’s “The Arabian Nights”

Arabian Nights’ epic tales reveal prosaic and timely gems of wisdom

 

 The Arabian Nights
Adapted and Directed by Mary Zimmerman
Lookingglass Theatre (buy tickets here )

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

As we watch actors splash around in a giant pool in “Twelfth Night” or fly above our heads in “Mary Poppins,” it’s easy to forget theatre’s humble origins. Storytelling is a worldwide fascination of all cultures and times, currently manifesting itself in Hollywood films, blogs (like the one you’re reading at this moment), and, of course, theatre. Keeping ArabianNights_Lookingglassgrandiose Greek works and Shakespearean epics in mind, playwright and director Mary Zimmerman explores theatre’s ritualistic and narrative roots in her plays. In her play “The Arabian Nights,” she dramatizes a thousand year old non-Western text, “1,001 Arabian Nights.” This is not merely a simple adaptation for the stage. The Lookingglass team performs in an array of ways, tossing into “Arabian Nights” the elements of a World Music concert, dance show, gymnastic event, improv performance, and a really long fart joke, as well as an insightful dramatic piece.

This is the third Lookingglass production of founder Zimmerman’s Near East epic. Each production coincided with a volatile period of American relations with the Islamic world, especially Iraq. The play premiered in 1992, directly after the first Gulf War. The second Lookingglass production took place in 1997, concurrent with Clinton’s order of air strikes on Iraq. Twelve years later, we are reminded of our involvement in Iraq every day.

Arabian Nights 1It’s nice to hear the names of places usually only heard on the nightly news—Iran, Basra, Cairo—in a positive light. I was reminded that when “1,001 Arabian Nights” was first written down in Arabic, the Muslim world was the most advanced society in the world, while Europe wallowed in the Dark Ages.

A7S1018web_normal Zimmerman completely embraces the idea of narrative. The frame of the play is the story of King Shahryar (Ryan Artzburger) and the young Scheherezade (Louise Lamson). Betrayed by his wife, the King marries, loves, and murders a different girl every night. The night Scheherezade’s number comes up, she decides she’ll attempt to delay his knife by entertaining his ear with her trove of stories. This works, and her flair for narrative keeps her head on her shoulders night after night after night. Her yarns range from short, funny tales to sprawling epics exploring love, death, and morality, and all of them are performed for us by the diversely talented cast. On top of Scherezade’s storytelling, many of the characters in her tales relate stories of their own. Because of the multiple stories-within-stories, the whole play is richly layered and complex. Some are childish, some are sexy, some are heartbreaking, all are thought-provoking. On a more or less bare stage covered with Persian rugs (proudly provided by Oscar Isberian Rugs, according to a program insert), Zimmerman’s staging and choreography color the stories with movement. With only some music, a few low tables, and the actors, the tales travel from Egypt to India.

Along with being agile and flexible, the cast also performs with honesty. Although she’s blonde (which was a little distracting), Lamson’s Scheherezade is vibrant and humble, and her love for her stories is moving. There are some standouts among the customizable cast. Allen Gilmore is excellent as Scherezade’s father and one of the funniest actors in the cast, playing a ridiculous jester and lunatic. Usman Ally, Ramiz Monsef, and Minita Ghandi also can switch from comedy to romance to tragedy with skill.

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Basically, Zimmerman reminds us how much stories affect us. We tell and listen to them everyday, through text message or best-selling book. “Arabian Nights” reveals the tales of a culture that has a monumental effect on our daily lives and national policy, from mortar attacks to the cost of gasoline. Yes, gems of wisdom are found in the play, but most importantly, we find that our two cultures experience many of the same values and struggles.

 

Rating: «««½

Venue: Water Tower Water Works
Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
Lookingglass Theatre (buy tickets here )

Adapted and Directed by Mary Zimmerman
Produced in association with Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Kansas City Repertory Theatre.  “Arabian Nights” features the work of company members Daniel Ostling, Mara Blumenfeld, Andre Pluess, Alison Siple, Sara Gmitter, Andy White, David Catlin, Louise Lamson and Heidi Stillman

Chicago Theater – Best of 2008 (Chicago Sun-Times)

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 Hedy Weiss, theater-critic extraordinaire for the Chicago Sun-Times, has put together an excellent list of her 10 favorite plays of 2008.  Along with the list, Hedy notes the wonderful year Chicago theater has had on the national stage:

…this was the year that Steppenwolf Theatre picked up five Tony Awards for its Chicago-bred Broadway production of Tracy Letts‘ “August: Osage County” before the cast crossed the pond to remount the show at London’s National Theatre, and when the Chicago Shakespeare Theater was feted with the “Best Regional Theater” Tony.

Continuing:

But that was just the beginning. Next Theatre‘s production of the new musical “Adding Machine,” was hailed in its Off Broadway incarnation, with director David Cromer racking up plaudits for his work on that show, as well as for his revelatory revivals of “Our Town” (at the Hypocrites) and “Picnic” (at Writers’ Theatre). Profiles championed the work of incendiary playwright Neil LaBute to grand effect. Remy Bumppo earned laughs with its tale of financial chicanery in a revival of an Edwardian classic, “The Voysey Inheritance.” And director Sean Graney experimented boldy with productions of “The Threepenny Opera” and Marlowe‘s “Edward II.”

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Now here are Hedy Weiss’s favorite productions in 2008:

 

1. Caroline or Change  (Court Theatre)
by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (musical director); performances: Malcolm Durning, E.Faye Butler
     
2. Ruined  (Goodman Theatre)
by Lynn Nottage
Weiss comments: Worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, the play will soon move to New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club.
 
     
3. Gatz  (Elevator Repair Service Theatre)
by John Collins
 
     
4. Our Town  (The Hypocrites)
by Thornton Wilder
Standouts: David Cromer (director)
 
     
5. Requiem for a Heavyweight  (Shattered Globe)
by Rod Serling
Standouts: Lou Contey (director)
 
     
6. Amadeus  (Chicago Shakespeare)
by Peter Schaffer
Standouts: Gary Griffin (director), Daniel Ostling (set designer); performances: Robert Sella, Robbi Collier Sublett, Elizabeth Ledo, Lance Baker
 
     
7. As You Like It  (Writers’ Theatre)
by William Shakespeare
Standouts: William Brown (director), Performance: Larry Yando
 
     
8. Drowsy Chaperone  (Cadillac Palace Theater)
by Laura Wade
Standouts: Casey Nicholaw (director)
 
     
9. Around the World in 80 Days  (Lookingglass)
Standouts: Laura Eason (adaptor/director); Performances: Philip R. Smith, Kevin Douglas, Joe Dempsey, Ravi Batista, Anish Jethmalani, Ericka Ratcliff, Nick Sandys and Rom Barkhordar
 
     
10. Columbinus  (Raven Theatre)
by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli
Standouts: Greg Kolack (director); Performances: Matthew Klingler and Jamie Abelson
 

To see the Hedy Weiss’s complete description and thoughts on her favorite plays, click here.