HUNTINGTON THEATRERUN RUN RUN to the Huntington’s 30th Anniversary season opener– a rollicking, moving, brilliantly staged, lit, costumed, and transcendently performed, just plain GLORIOUS production of CANDIDE! This was my first response, and upon further reflection– I liked it even more!!! It’s as if all of life were captured onstage in one bursting-at-the-seams bundle in Tony Award winner and director Mary Zimmerman’s fresh adaptation.

The point of departure is Voltaire’s satiric tale of the young Candide (Geoff Packard) who is cast out of his luxurious life after falling in love with his benefactor’s beautiful daughter Cunegonde (Lauren Molina). He sets out into the world armed only with the teachings of Doctor Pangloss, an “enlightened optimist” who has assured him that everything happens for the best “in this best of all possible worlds.”

What happens next quickly proves Pangloss to be an idiot: rape, robbery, war, lying, cheating, stealing, torture, death. Amazingly, much of this is funny. And that’s because what happens onstage IS the best of all possible collaborations: Leonard Bernstein’s soaring, vibrant, gorgeous score, Richard Wilbur’s witty and deeply moving lyrics (with help from Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker), Danny Pelzig’s vivacious choreography, Danny Ostling’s brilliant scenic design– a big wood-paneled magic box with secret windows and doors that pop open instantaneously to create new worlds out of thin air. And Mary Zimmerman’s direction which holds it all together–satire and earnestness, barbarity and kindness, tragedies piling up absurdly in this best of all possible worlds, even as she nurtures a deeply rooted humanity which comes into full bloom at the glorious a cappella climax of this unexpected garden of earthly delights.

The cast? They are not of this earth. Geoff Packard’s Candide inspires us with his innocence and perfectly-pitched sweet voice; but it’s Lauren Molina’s Cunegonde who steals the show with her seemingly infinite coloratura warblings and dynamic attack– she leaves us breathless at the end of every comic aria, but never more so than at the finale when Cunegonde–clearly spent but not undone–raises her voice and pain-darkened eyes to her beloved Candide who has returned to her after all. It’s a breathtaking, bravura performance. Both leads are supported by an extraordinary ensemble- many of whom have held leads in many a production– and here slip in and out of multiple roles seamlessly.

As Voltaire would tell us to cultivate our own gardens, I would warn–don’t let any grass grow under your feet as you make your way to the box office. This is a landmark production not to be missed. And it will do your soul good too.