Saturday 4 January 2014

Candide at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Leonard Bernstein's Candide is hardly a small scale musical, for a start its plot careers all over the globe and takes in such little gems as an auto-da-fe and an earthquake. But the Menier Chocolate Factory has never been daunted by size and has produced a remarkable series of musicals in their small-ish studio theatre. Matthew White's new production uses a cast of 15 hard working singers and a small band. Paul Farnsworth's set is the auditorium itself, the production takes place in the round with a walk-way behind the audience and the entire room is kitted out in distressed Spanish colonial style. The cast is led by James Dreyfus as Pangloss (Cacambo and Martin), Fra Fee as Candid, Scarlett Strallen as Cunegonde and Jackie Clune as the Old Lady. We caught the show on Friday 3 January, well on through the run.

I have seen the musical a number of times in various different versions ranging from Birmingham Rep in the late 1970's/early 1980's through Bernstein's 'final' version performed by the London Symphony Orchestra with opera singers in the main roles to the National Theatre's brilliant version with Simon Russell Beale. The programme does not make it clear which version Matthew White's production uses, but it was similar to that used by the National Theatre with Hugh Wheeler's book having a plot far closer to Voltaire's original book than the original musical.

Lillian Hellman's original book for the musical was intended as a political satire and I have often wondered whether, shorn of Bernstein's music, it could be made to work. White's production has gone in an entirely different direction, thankfully eschewing any thoughts of 'relevance'. Instead during the overture were are introduced to a cast of strolling players in shabby 18th century gear. They proceed to act the story and use minimal props in a highly imaginative fashion. This was very physical theatre, in the best possible way, with the actors inhabiting the entire auditorium including collapsing on the laps of audience members and handing them props to hold. One gentleman was elected King of the Bulgars and had a crown placed on his head, and another lady became an injured cripple!

It was all engaging and energetically involving. White's concern seems to have been to keep the show moving and engross us in the story telling, moving away from any sense of portentousness. The result was a complete delight and whilst it didn't convince that Candide is a complete masterpiece, it made for a brilliant theatrical entertainment. It has to be said that the middle of the second act rather sags, and for this we have to blame those who selected the material for the version. There is, I think, a little too much reverence for Voltaire's plot and for Bernstein's music, we could easily lose some chunks of plot and some songs to make a tighter piece.

One of the problems with the operetta is that the characters can come over as cyphers, pegs on which to hang the plot and the songs. One of the main virtues of the production was to combat this. James Dreyfus made a delightful Pangloss (doubling Cacambo and Martin), rather camp but completely engaging and creating, despite the odds, a nicely rounded character. Pangloss with his eternal optimism can be a bit of a pain and in some productions by the middle of act two you just want to slap him. Not Dreyfuss, he made the character work.

The title role was played by the young actor and singer Fra Fee, best known for his performance as Courfeyrac in the film adaptation of Les Miserables, but with a significant body of stage work behind him too. Bernstein writes for Candide a poignant series of solos which form the character's reaction to the busy plot going on around him. It is important that these become the still beating heart of the operetta. They are also something of a challenge, because they require a fine lyric tenor voice, but should not sound operatic. Fee was nearly ideal, bringing a nicely controlled lyric voice combined with a fine actorly feel to his vocal production. His solos were quietly intense and held the focus of the production admirably.

By contrast, Scarlett Strallen was completely and delightfully over the top as Cunegonde. She brought a Manon-like charm to the role of the girl who can't manage to stay with the man she loves because of her love for the good things in life. And of course, there is that song. Glitter and be Gay has developed a life of its own independent of the operetta. Strallen demonstrated that she has all the notes and, just as important, the control to do something with them. The coloratura was full voice and bravura combined with a nice actorly control. This is a musical, we need to hear the words and feel the song is part of the actors spoken performance, something that Strallen did well. Granted, a certain hardness crept into her tone in alt, but the overall result was delight, especially when combined with the completely over the top staging with Cunegonde pulling jewels from the chandelier. Oh, and she is very, very funny.

The other characters do not get that much of a look in. David Thaxton made the most of the annoying prig that Maximilian is. And Cassidy Janson brought a nice soubrette-ish charm to Paquette, making her a tart with a heart.

Jackie Clune was another delight as the Old Lady. Thankfully Clune is not that old, so that her singing voice is characterful but still lyrically controlled. This made her account of on of my favourite songs I am easily assimilated a perfect combination of music and character. This version of the show did not include Quiet so we missed that opportunity to hear Clune duetting with Strallen which is a shame.

The remaining cast were all hard working in the way that they doubled solo roles with the main ensemble. Helen Walsh spoke the Baroness (though the character was played by a giantly grotesque puppet), Michael Cahill was the Baron, the Inquisitor and many other roles, Ben Lewis's roles included the Governor and Vanderdendur. The remaining case were Frankie Jenna, Jeremy Batt, Carly Anderson, Christopher Jacobsen, Matt Wilman and Rachel Spurrell.

There was no dedicated chorus and no dancers, the ensemble did everything themselves. Adam Cooper's choreography was highly imaginative, allowing for the fact that his singers were dancing as well, and imbued the whole production with a lively quality. And the singing was of fine quality too. The concluding chorus, Make Our Garden Grow forming a fine and profoundly moving conclusion to the piece.

The operetta had been re-orchestrated by Jason Carr for a small ensemble. The results were highly imaginative especially with its use of piano-accordion, an instrument that I don't associate with Bernstein. The overture was a bit of a scramble and would probably have benefited from more players less closely miked, but after that the accompaniment was admirable. The musical director is Seann Alderking with Leon Charles as assistant, but I have no idea who was conducting.

One of the problem with musicals at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre is the amplification. The space isn't large and you would think that they would be able to do without amplification. Perhaps it is needed because of the rather diverse nature of the space. Gareth Owen's sound design was an improvement on some that I have heard in the theatre, but I am afraid that it still sounded as if the actors were singing along to a sound-track. I prefer my musicals to sound more natural and it seems a shame that a way cannot be found to make the theatre work without such strong intervention.

This was a delightful evening in the theatre and it made Bernstein's problem child work brilliantly. The hard working ensemble gave us some stunning and characterful performances with Fra Fee as the still small voice at its centre.

The show runs until February 22, though it is substantially sold out.

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