Candide was performed by the London Musical Theatre Orchestra and Chorus at Cadogan Hall, London.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Leonard Bernstein’s bonkers operetta inspired by Voltaire’s Candide received the one-night-only LMTO treatment at Cadogan Hall and it proved to be a glittering affair, reaffirming the London Musical Theatre Orchestra as the most exciting new force in town.
Although Candide is a show – a musical, really, rather than the more pretentious ‘operetta’ insisted upon by Bernstein – that rarely works in fully-staged form, in concert, it gives audiences a chance to focus on the composer’s undeniably wonderful score and Richard Wilbur’s (et al) brilliantly comic lyrics.
With a 34-piece orchestra as enthusiastic and talented as the LMTO, plus a chorus of WestEnders and top-class musical theatre principals, the best of all possible nights out was pretty much guaranteed.
But first, a quick word on the show itself. Michael Hutchins’ invaluable guide to the musical lists no fewer than 12 different incarnations of the book and, remarkably, 97 different songs! The adage that musicals aren’t written, they’re re-written, could have been coined for Candide, as it’s been a work in progress since its debut in 1956.
It’s the ultimate selection box, packed full of delicious numbers – Bernstein’s rich 18th century-inspired score is ripe with gavottes, schottisches, polkas, mazurkas and barcarolles – but the key to avoiding a sickly-sweet overdose is to find the right mix.
For this production, conductor (and LMTO founder) Freddie Tapner and director Shaun Kerrison opted for the 1993 revision of the 1989 version – that referred to Bernstein (presumptuously!) at the time as the ‘Final Revised Version’). A good choice, on the whole.
The overture to Candide is among the most popular of any musical, operetta or opera, and is the first touchpoint of the show (along with crowd-pleasers ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ and ‘Make Our Garden Grow’).
It’s a glorious number – orchestrated by Bernstein, who otherwise left the arrangements to Hershy Kay – and even at Tapner’s somewhat less demanding pace still got the show off to a cracking start. (The overture’s coda, served up as an encore, was pacier and closer to the mark, in my opinion.)
Introducing the evening, and acting as narrator, was the lovely James Dreyfus, reprising his role from the 2013 Menier Chocolate Factory production as the philosopher-teacher Pangloss.
Not the strongest of singers, Dreyfus nevertheless delivered on the comedy – in both the role of the Leibnizian optimist and in the concert narration, as written by Bernstein and British satirist John Wells.
His opening monologue, plotting the show’s circuitous history and seemingly endless list of collaborators, was hilarious. (That list, by the way, includes: Voltaire, Alexander Pope (sort of), Lillian Hellman (who first conceived of a musical version), Richard Wilbur, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, John Mauceri, John Wells, Hugh Wheeler, Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim!).
In the title role was the excellent and also perfectly cast Rob Houchen, a graduate of the Guildford School of Acting and alumni of, among others, Les Mis.
Candide as a character is something of a milksop, and has a disappointingly bland selection of numbers, but Houchen pulled them all off with aplomb and made us care about his predicament. His strong pop-musical tenor voice and boy band good looks firmly rooted the show as a musical, much to my liking. (I can’t bear to hear any Bernstein show sung operatically. Te Kanawa/Carreras, anyone?)
Talking of Antipodean chanteuses, Australian soprano Anna O’Byrne – on a busman’s holiday from playing Eliza Doolittle in Julie Andrews’ production of My Fair Lady Down Under – was absolutely delightful as Cunegonde… one role where the operatic voice is admittedly welcome.
All ears were on her much-anticipated ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ and she didn’t disappoint, picking off those top E-flats effortlessly, or so it seemed to me and the very appreciative audience.
Rounding off the podium were the woefully under-used Stewart Clarke (Maximilian), Jessica Duncan (Paquette), Louise Gold (Old Lady) and, in a variety of roles, Michael Matus. All four did a sterling job, but Matus was in particularly strong voice, and he and Gold milked every comedy drop from their time on stage.
The LMTO chorus – comprising 24 young West End regulars and recent graduates – was a joy to hear, even if at times the performers didn’t quite enter or come off together. A minor quibble.
Their key number, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’, which closes the show, was spine-tingling and solicited a roar of approval from the Cadogan crowd. Bravo all round.
Putting aside a few niggling issues with the ridiculous book, the occasional slow tempos (could’ve all been about 10% pacier) and the quality of the amplified sound – the Cadogan just doesn’t do it for me as a concert venue, I’m afraid – it was a marvellous evening of music.
The LMTO really is a force to be reckoned with, especially when delivering a score as spectacular as Candide. They deserve our full support. Indeed, I’m already looking forward to their next adventure with Mack and Mabel at the Hackney Empire in September.
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