Candide, performed by London Musical Theatre Orchestra, is a truly spectacular evening – with just a few weak links.
Leonard Bernstein’s Candide tells the tale of an optimistic young man who resolves to remain positive while his life falls spectacularly apart. It works exceptionally well as a concert piece: the brilliantly ludicrous narrative – swiftly transporting its characters from one end of the globe to the other – benefits from the flexibility of the form. With a deft hand and superb attention to detail, director Shaun Kerrison absolutely nails this approach in a production complimented by a remarkably effective lighting design from Mike Robinson. Dispensing unsung dialogue and choreography, the radically-condensed 1993 concert version works well – although one does sometimes feel that by cutting the piece so ruthlessly, it might be moving just a little too fast in places.
Narrator James Dreyfus holds an extensive performing CV, but is probably best known for his appearance on BBC’s Gimme Gimme Gimme. I’m not sure that would be his choice since he has many more prestogious accolades, but if (like me) you watch him thinking to yourself ‘Wait – where do I know him from?’ for an hour and a half, that’s almost certainly your answer. He is a brilliantly charismatic performer with flawless comic timing, carrying the production with a careering momentum throughout. It is clear that he has not been cast for his impressive vocal abilities, but generally this feels unimportant and does not hugely impact the effectiveness of his performance.
Rob Houchen as Candide gives a solid performance, capturing the youthful innocence of the protagonist. He approaches the role with a fine balance of sensitivity and self-awareness. Anna O’Byrne as his betrothed Cunegonde stands out as the star of the evening: she’s an absolute powerhouse of a performer, both vocally and dramatically. Wonderfully versatile, entirely committed and truly exceptional. Her ‘Glitter and be Gay’ won her a standing ovation mid-act – which was entirely deserved. I will be keeping my eyes peeled for her in future.
The smaller roles are a mixed bag. Stewart Clarke as Maximillian is gloriously arrogant, with a refined vocal and bags of charisma. Multi-roling Michael Matus possesses a voice-and-a-half, but not one he harnesses with much finesse. Limited distinction is drawn between his roles – in part, I think consciously – but I am not entirely convinced this is the right choice. Louise Gold as the Old Lady disappoints. She is vocally weaker than the other performers, and lacks the commitment which characterises the more effective performances. The inconsistency of quality does unfortunately impact on what is overall a strong production.
Perhaps the most remarkable achievement here is that the ensemble are truly allowed to shine. Conductor and founder Freddie Tapner oozes passion, and clearly knows how to inspire an exceptional group of people. Candide was a fantastic choice to show off this collective. In particular, the phenomenally moving finale, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ was astoundingly well-realised, demonstrating musical theatre at its finest. There is clearly a very bright future for this group, whose talent and enthusiasm are most palpable when they unite on stage.