Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark St, London SE1 1RU
Booking to February 22, 2014
Music by Leonard Bernstein, Book adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler, Lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein
This sprawling tale of a quintet of simple folk who endure one horror after another as they flee war and persecution across 18th century Europe and South America contains some of Bernstein greatest tunes but it has had, an undeservedly, chequered performance history. Originally developed with Lillian Hellman they used Voltaire's novel to satirise people who sail through life with an attitude of blind optimism, oblivious to the horrors around them, a complacency they saw as far too rife in early 1950s America. With a busy Bernstein at his professional peak the show had many false starts and opened on Broadway in 1956 to rave reviews but poor audience response. Since then Bernstein reworked the book a number of times most successfully in Hugh Wheeler's revised libretto in 1973, which is used here.
The breathless narrative switches from Westphalia to Lisbon (and its earthquake) and Pairs and Buenos Aires and many points in between ending up in Venice and designer Paul Farnsworth liberates the piece by staging it in the round, thus avoiding lots of tedious scene changes. Director Matthew White and choreographer Adam Cooper together give the piece a rumbustious energy, which is totally captivating in such an intimate space. There is beautiful attention to detail in how scenes are blocked to benefit audiences on all sides and witty design elements, such as using large drapes to conjure up storms or mountains. Gareth Owen's sound design too is an object lesson in how you balance the voices of soloists and chorus coming at you from four corners of a room.
And what singers they are in this stunning chorus, under the musical supervision of David Charles Abell. In the leads James Dreyfuss brings his customary comic panache to Pangloss, Cacombo and Martin and David Thaxton shines as the gloriously vapid Maximilian. In the difficult role of Candide (how can you not present him as a sap?) Fra Fee couldn't be more perfect. He is innocence personified and has the voice of an angel. He is going places and you're not likely to forget that name.
It is this unevenness of tone that many find unsatisfying about it and no doubt the reason is too many cooks spoiling the libretto. For the most part the show is a black satire of mankind's warmongering stupidity however as one tragedy after another besets this hapless troupe, diminishing returns set in as regards emotional impact. Problems then arise with it switches gear into heartfelt arias which can come across as insincere. It's an intractable problem with this book but when the music is this brilliant, it is churlish to grumble. In many ways this dichotomy sums up the great Bernstein himself – the great intellect and the great showman fighting for supremacy.