Menier Chocolate Factory
The thing is this: Candide ( music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Voltaire via Hugh Wheeler and Matthew White, lyrics by Wilbur, Sondheim, Bernstein, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Helman and John Latouche) is a very difficult piece of musical theatre.
The text is complicated, the music is brilliant, challenging and thrilling, and it is one of those pieces which requires a truly gifted ensemble cast each of whom can act extremely well and sing even better and an audience willing to pay attention in order to reap the rewards of performance. It contains THE bravura song for a lead soprano (Glitter and be Gay) and the most beautiful and haunting piece of choral music ever written for a musical (Make Our Garden Grow).
When it works, it is magical: a fairy tale, an allegorical morality play, a funny ensemble piece, a love story, a lesson in overcoming adversity and making and taking happiness where it can be found. When it doesn’t, it is as dull a two and one half hours you are ever likely to spend in a theatre (productions of Danton’s Death aside) and your time would be better spent at home, on the sofa, listening to the recording conducted by Bernstein himself.
A version of it is now playing its final performances at the Menier Chocolate Factory, edited and directed by Matthew White, choreographed by Adam Cooper, with musical supervision from David Charles Abell and musical direction by Seann Alderking, set and costume design by Paul Farnsworth and lighting by Paul Anderson.
It is difficult to find the correct words to describe the experience of seeing this production, but here goes: Mesmerising; Meticulous; Overwhelming; Glorious; Sublime.
White has carefully and artfully, with warmth and extraordinary attention to detail, directed every second of the piece, and the stunning set, costumes and lighting combine to take the audience of a magical journey. It is almost impossible not to feel like a 9 year old devouring Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson as the violent, awful experiences of the titular character mount up and up. But it never feels dark – the heart is profoundly present.
It’s incredibly funny and equally insightful and heart-breaking. During the finale of Act Two, one wants nothing more than to hold the hand of the friends with you in the audience. White’s achievement here is quite phenomenal.
He is aided by an extraordinary cast – easily the best singing ensemble I have ever heard on a London stage. Their Make Our Garden Grow and Universal Good are perfect in every way. Perfect.
Fra Fee is utterly beguiling as Candide; open, naïve, fresh, masculine in a youthful way and with a voice that is challenged by Bernstein’s score so that when he sings there is the thrill of the possibility he might not be equal to the demands, but he comes through every time. I don’t think I have ever seen Nothing More Than This so evocatively performed. His acting is pitch perfect too – he really carries the show, mining every thought, every action, every moment for pathos, beauty and understanding.
James Dreyfus is quite sensational as Pangloss/Cacambo/Martin – nimble, salacious, wise and in excellent voice. I have never seen him better. Cassidy Janson makes a pert, insistent and quite delicious Paquette; David Thaxton is remarkable as Maximilian, dry, wry, fey, richly obnoxious and on perfect vocal form.
Michael Cahill, Helen Walsh, Jeremy Batt and Rachel Burrell stand out, both in terms of their character acting and vocal prowess, but really there is not one weak link in the ensemble. And they all work ferociously hard and continually.
Jackie Clune, who plays the Old Lady, is not in the quite the same league as everyone else, as actress or singer, but over the course of the production she has grown in confidence and skill and so the scenes which depend upon her, and especially Easily Assimilated now pulse with the same confidence and energy as the rest of White’s jigsaw of clever genius.
The musicians play with considerable skill and although there seemed far too few strings in the magnificent overture, that feeling quickly passed. This is a production of world class standard – truly, the National Theatre ought to pick it up and let it run for months as part of its repertoire.
I doubt I will ever see a more enchanting, exhilarating or excellent production of this show. Not the least because Scarlett Strallen is the most unbeatable Cunegonda the world is likely to ever be blessed with. I have never heard Glitter And Be Gay sung so effortlessly, so expertly, every note perfectly placed, every word gloriously enunciated, every wicked or rapacious thought so cleverly and completely conveyed: there is a genius moment with a chandelier which has to be seen to be believed. Her work throughout the piece is faultless; she misses nothing and lands everything whether it be hilarious, touching or sad. Her work with Fee is shimmering, delicate and profoundly right. You Were Dead, You Know is stunning. She wipes the floor with Kristin Chenoweth, which might sound unlikely but absolutely is the case.
This genius production ought not be missed. Sell body parts to see it and to revel in its ecstasy.