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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Menier Chocolate Factory  Winter 2013-2014

All musicals have book problems. But not all musicals have music by Leonard Bernstein at the absolute peak of his powers. So even if Matthew White's production were not as inventive and enjoyable as it is, Candide would be worth your time just for the glorious songs. 

Voltaire's 18th-century narrative is a satire of currently fashionable philosophical optimism, as a young man who has been taught that 'All's for the best in this best of all possible worlds' then has a load of horrible things happen to him and everyone he knows, until he finally decides to give up philosophy and just try to get through life with hard work and simple pleasures. 

The credits for Candide list one book writer and six lyricists, but in fact several others worked on it uncredited, and just about every revival since its brief Broadway run in 1956 has involved tinkering, rearranging or complete rewriting, so the actual list of contributing authors probably exceeds twenty. 

The theatrical problem is that everything after the opening scene is pretty much the same Candide and/or the others come to a new location with hope and are abused, corrupted, mutilated or killed, only to move on to someplace else to have it all happen again. 

The scenes could really come in almost any order, with no real forward movement, and the conclusion comes when it does as much because two and a half hours have passed and it's time to send the audience home as any other reason. (It's worth noting that Stephen Schwartz's musical Pippin, which has a very similar plot, has the same book problems.) 

Ah, but the music. Bernstein's vibrant overture has taken on a life of its own, becoming a staple of the symphony orchestra repertoire, 'Glitter And Be Gay' is a coloratura show-off piece, 'Make Our Garden Grow' is an exquisite choral finale, and every single song is a gem. Even comic songs like 'The Best Of All Possible Worlds' and 'I Am Easily Assimilated' have unforgettable melodies. 

Staging the show in the round, with action frequently moving into and behind the audience, director Matthew White is constantly finding witty ways to abuse the characters and to acknowledge some of the plot's absurdities, like the fact that a few characters get killed more than once each. From the wealth of variant texts he's chosen one that includes a lot of open narration, spreading it around, Nicholas Nickleby style, so that bits of storytelling are likely to come from anywhere. 

The role of Candide is a rather thankless one, since the character has to wander passively from disaster to disaster, but Fra Fee gives him an attractive openness and innocence while singing beautifully. 

The musical honours go to Scarlett Strallen as his repeatedly-debauched beloved Cunegonde, if only because she gets to revel in the vocal challenges of 'Glitter And Be Gay', while James Dreyfus as philosopher Pangloss among other roles and Jackie Clune as a mono-buttocked (Don't ask or she'll tell you) old lady adeptly carry much of the comedy. 

The book problems remain, but the inventive production and that glorious music carry the evening.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Candide - Menier Chocolate Factory 2013

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