Voltaire understood that the best way to get at the fundamental questions of life is to show just how absurd life is. The Goodman's production of Leonard Bernstein's musical adaptation of "Candide," helmed by director Mary Zimmerman, perfectly captures this spirit.
Candide (Geoff Packard) grows up on his uncle's estate in Westphalia, where he learns from his philosophizing teacher Pangloss that they are living in "the best of all possible worlds." Even when he is kicked out of his uncle's home for kissing his cousin Miss Cunegonde (Lauren Molina), conscripted into an army, nearly hanged by the Inquisition, and robbed of all his wealth, Candide clings to this optimistic outlook. He encounters the same characters again and again, engaging in philosophical debates while experiencing numerous horrors. Zimmerman's direction shines as she juxtaposes absurd action with serious conversation. In one scene, Candide fights his way through a slow-motion game of catch with cannon balls in a sharp commentary on war. In another, Candide and the newly resurrected Pangloss roll about on stage as their ship sinks, discussing all the while whether this is still the best of all possible worlds.
Aside from the wonderful singing, the rapid pace of the play is its greatest strength, so it is too bad it drags almost every time narrators step on stage. They are meant to move us from one scene to the next, but too often they describe action we have already seen.
The ensemble shines marvelously, with fine turns especially by Hollis Resnik (Old Woman) and Jesse J. Perez (Cacambo). By the end of the play the main characters have worked through religious, philosophical, political, and social woes, and they come to the true end of a satire in the moving song "Make Our Garden Grow" – an exhausted recognition of, if not what is true in this world, at least how to live in it.