Candide continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until 22 February 2014.
Menier Chocolate Factory’s last musical Merrily We Roll Along was a huge hit, even transferring for a successful run in the West End and being made into a movie, but it is hard to be as enthusiastic about the theatre’s revival of Candide.
With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by such American giants as Richard Wilbur, Lillian Hellman, Stephen Sondheim and Dorothy Parker (who contributed one song and then fell out with Bernstein) and John LaTouche, and Hugh Wheeler’s book adapted from a philosophical satire by Voltaire, it has delusions of literary grandeur.
But it is more a case of ‘too many cooks…’ than ‘many hands make light work’, and the reality is an uneasy mix of musical farce, panto, comic operetta, with a hint of Gilbert and Sullivan, and even Pythonesque theatre of the absurd, all attempting to depict the serious themes of reconciling human cruelty, world unrest, shipwreck, murder and public execution with the simplistic notion that “all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds”.
Much revised since its 1956 incarnation, a hit in the 1970s when Hal Prince, with serious help from Sondheim, took a shorter, sharper version to Broadway for 740 performances, and a double Olivier Award-winner as a 1999 National Theatre production, it more than passes muster as an upmarket Christmas holiday treat, but whether there will be full houses in the middle of February is open to debate.
Yet Bernstein’s music is glorious, the cast is exhaustingly enthusiastic, there is a show-stopping, high-note-hitting version of ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ from the lustrous Scarlett Strallen in the Cundegonde role that established Barbara Cook as a Broadway star the best part of 60 years ago, some great comic business – and the clever ‘Words, Words Words’ number – from the irrepressible James Dreyfus, two terrific duets between Strallen and leading man Fra Fee (‘Oh, Happy We’ and ‘You Were Dead, You Know’) and in ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ as good a closing number as you could wish for.
Every part of the auditorium at every level is put to maximum use by director Matthew White, set designer Paul Farnsworth and choreographer Adam Cooper, but at two and three-quarter hours it is at least three songs too long and the plot, which starts in Westphalia and ends up in Venice with pit-stops in Holland, Lisbon, Paris, Cadiz, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Eldorado and Suriname on the way, too silly for words.
And, despite all the frenzied, bewigged on-stage activity with swords, red ribbons-for-blood and sheep that double as purses, not quite as laughter-inducing as they were hoping for judging from the audience reaction. Often we are unsure which country we’re in, with only the change of accents and the translation of the Dog and Duck hostelry sign into various languages to guide us.
Performances are never less than lively: Cassidy Janson is suitably saucy as the put-upon prostitute Paquette, David Thaxton a nicely camp Maximilian, Frankie Jenna dances up a storm, Jackie Clune, Michael Cahill, Helen Walsh, Ben Lewis and Carly Anderson all work their socks off, and the nine-piece orchestra under MD Sean Alderking is bang on the money. But is it all worth it?
Bernstein’s Overture, always a great concert favourite, gets proceedings off to a grand start and ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ is a thrilling, moving finale. It is much of what is in between that is the worry.
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