Leonard Bernstein’s operetta of the novel Candide by French philosopher Voltaire has always been known as a problem play. So, any new production should really be judged on how well it disguises the inherent flaws. On that criterion, let’s say now that as far as the cast and crew are concerned, this revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory is an absolute belter.
Director Matthew White and star choreographer Adam Cooper have created a beautifully dynamic whirligig to showcase their terrific ensemble and manage to sweep the majority of the play’s problems under the carpet. The leads are terrific, the stagecraft excellent and the overall experience is full of joy.
Yet the problems do nag, the principal one being a bitty and episodic story-line. Candide (Fra Free) is an optimistic young man living the life deluxe in Westphalia until he is caught in flagrante delecto with the Baron’s daughter Cunegonde (Scarlett Strallen). He is promptly exiled and so begins a random adventure around the world during which he is forced to face death and destruction and re-evaluate his natural positivity.
There are 10 countries to get through, innumerable incidents and a confusing panoply of characters. Naturally, some of these stand out more than others; some are good fun, others less so. The battles and balls and an auto-da-fé are all cleverly staged, while characters like Dr Pangloss (James Dreyfuss) and the old lady who’s had her left buttock eaten (Jackie Clune) are realised with wit and charm. But this is a long play and it does sag.
The intimate staging certainly helps during the less interesting scenes, as the cast twirls through the audience, even using one or two of them as props. It’s a bit pantomime at times, but that suits the time of year and it might just be the best of all possible ways to stage a story that might otherwise be too alienating.
The play also suffers, ultimately, from an unresolved clash of sensibilities: that of Broadway versus the sneerier side of the French Enlightenment. Perhaps an open and emotional composer like Bernstein was just too odd a fit for Voltaire’s anti-fable, one of the foundational ur-texts of French cynicism.
The story is pulled in two different directions – eager to please yet full of caustic satire – and the ideas end up collapsing in on themselves. Still, this is a gorgeous entertainment and the rousing songs more or less drown out the complaints. Let’s call it a qualified triumph.
Candide is on at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 22 February 2014. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.