Candide hurls its characters from a storybook castle into a garden hedged ‘round by a new-earned knowledge of good and evil, and in the process it cracks open their heads and their hearts. Ours, too.

At least in Mary Zimmerman’s thoughtful, emotional production—are there two words that chime together better when the subject is theater?—this is fierce, fleet satire that both illuminates ideas and fires the spirit. And sweet St. Cecilia, that music: More tuneful than six ordinary Broadway scores stacked atop one another, more sophisticated than anything else out there (with the eternal possible exception of Sondheim, and he contributed the odd lyric anyway), Candide is joy in a bottle for anyone who thrills to a show that genuinely sings.

The story, older than the United States but on-point and political enough in Zimmerman’s rewrite that you’ll be tempted to scan the credits for stray Maddows and Olbermanns, is simple enough: A sweet dim-bulb of a hero suffers a series of disasters natural and man-made, clinging despite all evidence to his teacher’s philosophy that we live in “the best of all possible worlds,” and that all those griefs are just part of some vast inscrutable plan.

Tosh, said Voltaire, the 18th-century troublemaker whose progressive-minded broadsides at both church and state landed him on Enlightenment-era enemies lists. His acid novella was the inspiration for Leonard Bernstein, another left-leaning intellectual given to polarizing public antics—who, at the instigation of the blacklisted writer Lillian Hellman, took on the task of setting Candide’s endless setbacks to music.

Endless, did I say? Inescapably: It’s in the mechanics of Voltaire’s original that our hero takes forever to wise up. And no question, that presents a challenge onstage, where a catalog of continually dashed hopes, even if they’re inventively visualized, can begin to seem repetitive. (There’s a reason revisions to Candide have been as frequent and regular as the revivals, a reason the show’s list of credited and uncredited contributors has grown as populous as its cast. Seriously: Everybody from Dorothy Parker to Mandy Patinkin’s cousin Sheldon has had a hand in this thing.)

Which is what makes Zimmerman, who’s both a visual alchemist and a proven punch-up artist, such a good fit for Candide. Her gorgeous waterborne Metamorphoses reduced audiences to puddles on Broadway; in D.C., she trimmed the perambulations of Pericles to the bone, and found among them more soul-stirring moments than Shakespeare probably knew he put there. If nothing else, the lady knows how to package an episodic story.

Here, she and her design-team regulars find simple, evocative visual cues to punctuate the stops on Candide’s journey. Scenarist Dan Ostling condenses the evening’s beginning into a jewel box—a tiny playing area populated with figures that might be cutouts in a pop-up book—then explodes the space into an echoing coffered vault when Candide discovers that the world is bigger than his teacher’s limited horizons. Lighting designer T.J. Gerckens will dapple those wood-grained walls with vine leaves for a jungle sequence and rose-tinted curlicues for a boudoir scene, darken its cavernous reaches except for one chill-lit corner when Candide is at his lowest ebb, and flood it at the story’s happiest peaks with light so golden it seems almost liquid.

Costumer Mara Blumenfeld, meanwhile, chooses Candide’s tutor, Dr. Pangloss, for a visual through-line; robed in brocades at the beginning, the man’s as threadbare as his philosophy by the time his former pupil offers him a chance at redemption. (Miss Cunegonde, our protagonist’s muse and his heart’s desire, fares better sartorially despite her famous disembowelment—but then she gets the occasional hand up from a gentlemen protector, each more corrupt than the last.) Ensemble members sport gowns that might be made for a marchioness (just consider the chocolate-and-robins-egg glories on Tracy Lynn Olivera’s back), while when Candide and a faithful servant stumble into El Dorado unawares, they find children playing in what looks convincingly like cloth-of-gold.

All these things, taken individually, might be merely clever, merely rich, merely pleasing. Zimmerman marshals them so that they come together in breath-stopping moments. A battle is a ballet for cannonballs. A swordfight in Buenos Aires is somehow slow-motion buddy-comedy slapstick. (Never mind that it’s being performed live, without benefit of a half-speed projector.) That moment with a shattered Candide in a corner, washed in pewter light? The stage has, until seemingly that instant, been teeming with people sing merrily about the tonic pleasures of a good auto-da-fé; Zimmerman somehow makes them vanish all together, or tricks the eye so thoroughly that you’re convinced they have, and the shift in tone is a fist to the gut. Another breath, and she’s brought you to an ecstatic height again, with a tug on a veil and a resurrection that’s as gratifying as the one she once gave a princess in Pericles.

I’d go on, but the point’s made—and I’ve left myself precious little room to celebrate the comic genius of Hollis Resnik, who manages to be funny with her buttocks, her ankles, the laces of a corset, and the occasional strategically crossed eye. “We Are Women,” a hilarious two-hander for Resnik’s Old Woman and Lauren Molina’s Cunegonde, gets Act 2 off to a brisk start, just as “I Am Easily Assimilated,” in which Resnik leads a tavern chorus to a rousing tabletop finish, makes for a comic palate-cleanser before the open-hearted off-to-the-New World quartet that sends audiences out to the bar for intermission.

Likewise it should be noted that Molina is pert, quick, charming, and funny as all get-out in the punishingly difficult “Glitter and Be Gay,” which both parodies and celebrates showstopper soprano arias; that Erik Lochtefeld preens fetchingly as her vain idiot of a brother; that Larry Yando nearly manages to make the smug Dr. Pangloss seem amiable; and that among the fine gaggle of narrators who take turns setting the scene for various quayside embarkations, overland treks, wholesale slaughters, and impulsive assassinations, Rebecca Finnegan deserves special mention, not just for the warmth and gravitas she brings to that task, but for her delicious background work as a sweets-gobbling Baroness in the opening scene and her uproarious front-and-center turn as a swindling shipowner in “Bon Voyage,” a Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche so bouncy and infectious it’s a downright plague.

It will not have escaped the observant that I’ve said nothing, still, about Geoff Packard, who’s tackled the unenviable task of making a human character out of a philosophical straw man. Candide keeps getting brutalized, keeps hoping to discover why that’s necessary in a world where all works for the greater good, keeps not learning. It’s exasperating.

Or it might be, if you don’t watch closely. But I think I saw something more: Zimmerman and Packard have decided, I think, that Candide is always on the verge of revelation, but that something keeps distracting him just at the cusp of understanding. War’s brutalities spark questions, but he’s reunited with Dr. Pangloss, and his earnestness allows him to put doubt aside; earthquakes and bigotry disillusion him, but he’s reunited briefly with Cunegonde and his happiness carries him away; institutional cruelty and individual opportunism
pull back the blinders for a moment, but he sees the glimmer of El Dorado on the horizon and discovers happiness there, alloyed only by the fact of his lost-again love. It’s small, what Packard is doing in these moments, and it’s of necessity nonverbal—Bernstein, et al., haven’t gone so far as to give him what Voltaire chose not to. But it’s there, and it’s touching.

And when, in what begins with him and builds into the single greatest chorale of the musical-theater canon, Packard’s Candide finally matures into a man in full—when he turns to Molina’s Cunegone and extends a hand and sings to her, in a lambent tenor suffused with both knowledge of her limits and a palpable love in spite of them, the line “You’ve been a fool, and so have I/But come and be my wife”—the elements of Zimmerman’s production align again, simply and stupendously. Then she joins him, and then the ensemble, and the voices weave tapestries until they reach the great, humane heart of the matter, and the orchestra stops, thunderstruck: “We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good—we do the best we know,” they sing.

For a moment, it’s the best of all possible worlds.