Maestro Leonard Bernstein’s musical version of Voltaire’s 18th-century novel was repeatedly worked on by a procession of other great talents .Lillian Hellman brought the idea to Bernstein and Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein himself all had a hand in the lyrics, although the main lyric-writing credit goes to the poet, Richard Wilbur.
Perhaps this is why Matthew White’s admirable whirligig revival of this 1956 musical never quite rids itself of a certain dog’s-dinner quality.
But then, Voltaire’s satire about a Westphalian naif whose blind optimism survives serial calamities is not easily contained.
The narrative vaults across the globe with stunning bravado. Characters such as young Candide’s philosopher mentor Pangloss (a gnomic James Dreyfus) and the love of his life Cunegonde (a typically superb Scarlett Strallen) are established and then killed off, and then re-established with a callousness that forces the audience to rein in the emotions teased out by Bernstein’s occasionally gorgeous score.
White wisely promotes a carnival, tongue-in-cheek atmosphere.
With the Menier reconfigured by designer Paul Farnsworth into a two-tier traverse stage ringed by balconies, the evening has the feel of an impromptu show mounted in the courtyard of a provincial town — the message being that nothing here should be taken too seriously.
Actors make forays into the audience, dishing out winks and flirty smiles like sweets.
And in the centre is Fra Fee’s deadly earnest Candide. The show works best once you have relinquished the desire to be moved.
Much of Bernstein’s score is operatic at heart and the cod-tragic Glittering and Be Gay propels Strallen’s Cunegonde so far up the musical register she might consider Madam Butterfly for her next role.
Dreyfus makes his biggest impact as philosopher Martin whose number Words, Words, Words offers a rare moment of cynical sanity.
Amazing then that, after all this, the sincerity of Make Our Garden Grow, a hymn to the hard graft of real life instead of the blind faith of baseless optimism, hits home.
So there is emotional reward after all. But best to view this ambitious staging as an enlightened antidote to the unthinking optimism of all those other seasonal offerings.