A KNOCKOUT! Mary Zimmerman’s production of Candide at the Huntington is three hours of fun with bite.

How could a musical with a dazzling score and a perfect cast have been such a dismal flop on Broadway? In 1956, Candide, Leonard Bernstein's ambitious satirical operetta, based on Voltaire, lasted only 73 performances. But thanks to its "posthumous" original-cast album, it became a landmark, with countless revivals. The show's original book was by no less a literary luminary than Lillian Hellman, but, embittered and disappointed, she forbade any future use of her script. Bernstein continued to tinker, but no definitive edition exists. We mostly get Hugh Wheeler's version, with its arch narration, spoken by Voltaire, stringing together musical numbers. The lyrics by Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Hellman, and Bernstein himself, have been modified or abandoned. Some new ones were added by Stephen Sondheim. The best production I've ever seen was at the Boston Conservatory in 2003 — every student a polished professional. Director Neil Donohoe's inspired metaphor was Candide as circus, a three-ring phantasmagoria that made sense of its kaleidoscopically changing locations and fortunes.

Now the Huntington Theatre, which presented Candide before, in 1989, has brought us a version by stage and opera director Mary Zimmerman, who made it first for Chicago's Goodman Theatre. It's a knockout! Three hours of fun with bite. It never lags. Chicago-based Zimmerman, who's best known for her Tony-winning production of Ovid's Metamorphoses, is a master of "theater games." She gives us voyages, shipwrecks, and battles sped up or in slow motion (with cannon balls like bowling balls tossed around and juggled). Her Lisbon earthquake, a major turning point, is hilarious — and truly scary. Her frequent collaborator, set designer Daniel Ostling, catches our eyes and tickles our funny-bones with unexpected trap doors, a balcony that extends and retracts, and walls closing in or opening out to distant vistas.

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>> PHOTOS: Huntington Theatre Company's Candide <<

Zimmerman's opera productions for the Met have ranged from the lame (Armida) to the utterly misguided (Bellini's pastoral romance La sonnambula set in a New York rehearsal studio). But in Candide, having gone back to Voltaire's original novella and writing what is essentially a desperately-needed new script, she's thoroughly in her element, giving shape and wit to all its unwieldy and protean material. There's still narration, which reminds us that Candide is based on a book, but it's now like silent-movie title cards, delivered by multiple narrators with succinct Brechtian irony. Some songs seem squeezed into the newly devised plot, yet the musical numbers come off with unembarrassed vitality. Some of them, like the auto-da-fé, work better than I've ever seen.

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  Topics: Classical , satire, Voltaire, Huntington Theatre,  More more >
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