Matthew White's production of Bernstein's Candide opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory last night (2 December) and runs until 22 February 2014
The philosopher Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide never tires of asserting that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, despite the evidence to the contrary: disease, rape, mass murder, religious persecution and natural disasters.
So Leonard Bernstein's brilliant, flawed musical version – with lyrics by the great Molière translator Richard Wilbur (and input from Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker, no less) – is the first ironic "look on the bright side" Broadway show in a genre that trades chiefly in uplift and optimism.
Every production – and Matthew White's highly enjoyable Menier revival is no exception – feels like a work in progress, though Hugh Wheeler's book has been notably tightened in versions at Scottish Opera in 1988 and the National in 1999 (by Jonathan Miller and John Caird, respectively, the latter "assisted by Trevor Nunn") by casting one actor as Pangloss and the narrative voice of Voltaire.
In not following that scheme, White allows too much slack in the second half, but that's my only serious complaint. His show, wittily choreographed by Adam Cooper and colourfully designed by Paul Farnsworth, is a tumbling cornucopia of great songs and daring musical invention as Fra Fee's sensationally well sung Candide pursues his Westphalian lover, Cunégonde, across continents.
Scarlett Strallen is the frisky love object, and all aficionados will be waiting for her take on "Glitter and be Gay." She does it brilliantly, virtually humping her own jewellery box, varying her tempo for skilful dramatic effect, discharging the coloratura trills with aplomb and finally raiding even the Venetian chandelier for more baubles.
It's good to see James Dreyfus again as a drily embittered Pangloss (with a sturdy Martin and a half-caste Cacambo thrown in for good measure), and Jackie Clune is bustling and hilarious as the Old Woman with one buttock, a Pope's daughter, who feels "suddenly Spanish" and all too easily assimilated.
Cassidy Janson is an eye-catching, flirtatious Paquette, too, and there's solid work from David Thaxton as an up-himself Maximilian and Ben Lewis doubling a lubricious Archbishop with a a Governor of Buenos Aires who takes his droit de seigneur to absurdly offensive lengths.
The ensemble numbers ("What a day, what a day, for an auto-da-fé" the pick) are a special treat, and the chorales – culminating in the gloriously moving "Make Our Garden Grow" – full of harmonic, melodic and dissonant delights.
Bernstein's sprung rhythms and dance motifs reflect the undaunted survival spirit of the characters ("It's a long story…" is their mantra), and you do get a real sense of adventure and derring-do from Lisbon and Paris to the mountains of Montevideo (where the Incas are evoked in white cloaks and tribal masks), the Surinam jungle and the canals of Venice.
The show is presented in almost the round, with a moderate amount of audience joshing and a great contribution from a nine-piece band on the upper level under the musical direction of Seann Alderking. In the end, of course, everyone learns the value of staying home and digging the garden. But you can't do that without first enduring the most perfectly imperfect of all impossible musicals.