Music: Leonard Bernstein
Book: Hugh Wheeler, adapted from Voltaire
Lyrics: Richard Wilbur
Additional Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein
Director: Matthew White
Reviewer: Ian Foster
Leonard Bernstein’s take on Voltaire’s philosophical attire has had many incarnations, thus labelling it as something of a problematic musical. But given their pedigree for musical theatre, the Menier Chocolate Factory are never one to shirk from a challenge and with director Matthew White editing his own new adaptation from the 1988 Scottish Opera version, this production does a great job at enhancing its particular strengths. Candide is a young man, a student of philosophy in love with the higher-born Cunegonde but when forced out into the harsh reality of the outside world, he finds his learning – “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” – is increasingly tested.
Switching the Menier’s seating into the round (and running off some nifty seat covers and numbers from the sewing machine) draws the audience into the show at every turn and takes us along to every far-flung corner of the globe to which it skips in Adam Cooper’s expressive choreography. Not a moment for potential audience interaction (of the gentlest sort, mind) is missed and platforms, gangways and balconies (even suspended chairs) scattered throughout the auditorium ensure that one is never left straining one’s neck for too long.
The intimacy that this affords the audience to a cast of this calibre is consequently astounding. Scarlett Strallen’s singing and dancing as Cunegonda, mixing bracing high-kicks and dazzling coloratura in Glitter And Be Gay, is show-stoppingly good. Jackie Clune’s comedic skills come to the fore as a Polishwoman with one buttock, and David Thaxton’s unflappable toff Maximilian and Cassidy Janson’s highly appealing flirt Paquette are also great fun. And when the ensemble pull together for the choral numbers, such as the ecstatic closer Make Our Garden Grow, the effect sends wonderful chills down the spine.
There is no denying that there are issues with the book though – there’s little forward momentum in Candide’s journeying through the trials of life, things just tend to happen to him, and nor is there much discernible emotional progression until the very final scene. Played with the lightest of touches, this can be amusing – as when characters previously thought dead reappear at the drop of a hat – but spread over a lengthy running time, it can get a little wearing. White is conscious of keeping things moving as often as possible though and so the show never lingers too long.
And if it doesn’t always have the dramatic heft of a truly great musical, the glorious score and the sterling efforts of cast and creative alike elevate this into something beautifully sweet. Like a slice of overloaded pavlova, it is delicious in the tasting and though it may not linger too long in the mind, that isn’t necessarily too bad a thing.