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A CurtainUp London London Review

"Optimism . . . is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst." — Cacambo
Fra Fee as Candide and Scarlett Strallen as Cunegonde (Photo: Nobby Clark)
The Menier Chocolate Factory hosts the most charming musicals on a small scale and somehow improves them with their intimate productions. With Bernstein's music and brilliant singing, what more could we wish for? It is the adaptation of Voltaire's difficult novel which is problematic.

In a set like a medieval courtyard, the playing boards distressed with blue paint, the front row of the audience are practically in the show, in a reconfigured space with playing areas on a balcony and the orchestra in one corner. Voltaire's novel ranges across an imperfect world starting in Westphalia where the philosopher Dr Pangloss (James Dreyfus) schools Candide alongside the children of the Baron and Baroness, Cunegonde (Scarlett Strallen) and her brother Maximillian (David Thaxton) and the sexually adventurous maid Paquette (Cassidy Janson).

With the first act set in Europe, the second act explores South America before returning to Venice for the finale. Voltaire's novel is fairly shambolic with all kinds of returning from the dead in unexpected places but it also illustrates the vicissitudes that life throws at Candide and his companions.

Fra Fee from Northern Ireland, as Candide sings heavenly and has that wide eyed innocence, we like our heroes to possess, under a curly mop of unruly dark hair. The upper class love of his life, Cunegonde lives through the fate of a pretty girl with no money and no protector, other than the single buttocked Old Lady (Jackie Clune). Michael Cahill and Ben Lewis play Cunegonde's many ravishers. In Cadiz, Candide meets up with Cacambo (James Dreyfus) who becomes his guide and loyal servant. Dreyfus is in his element and gets to play three significant characters, Pangloss, Cacambo and Martin, with verve and humour.

Adam Cooper contributes the dance and ballet sequences, the memorable Auto da Fe ballet and the dance introduction to South America. The lyrics have gems of wit and so they should be with lyricists like Sondheim, Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman on board. I particularly liked the rhyming of ermine with vermin and found Bernstein's tunes are sung well by a talented and very hard working cast.

Paul Farnsworth's designs are always witty with many of the costumes showing realistic signs of wear and the rope that hangs Pangloss becomes the hanging of the chandelier. The red sheep carrying the gold bars from Eldorado are fun and imaginative. I liked too the depth in Scarlett Strallen's Cunegonde who doesn't survive without showing the trauma she has endured but Fra Fee's Candide seems to float along on the confidence cloud of the belief Dr. Pangloss inspired. Surely this is an early example of the power of visualisation?

This is approaching the best of all possible musical worlds!

For Elyse Sommer's review of the musical in New York with full songlist and more details go here.

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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
Directed by Matthew White

Starring: James Dreyfus, Fra Fee, Scarlett Strallen
With: Cassidy Janson, David Thaxton, Helen Walsh, Michael Cahill, Ben Lewis, Frankie Jenna, Jeremy Batt, Jackie Clune, Carly Anderson, Christopher Jaconsen, Matt Wilman, Rachel Spurrell
Set and Costume Design: Paul Farnsworth
Choreography by Adam Cooper
Musical Supervision: David Charles Abell
Orchestrations: Jason Carr
Sound: Gareth Owen
Lighting: Paul Anderson
Musical Director: Seann Alderking
Running time: Two hours 40 minutes including one interval
Box Office: 020 7378 1713
Booking to 22 February 2014
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th December performance at The Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU (Rail/Tube: London Bridge)

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