Sunday, February 9, 2014

'Candide' - great first show of the year

The musical Candide is based on the 18th century satire, Candide, or Optimism by the French philosopher Voltaire. The novella focuses more on ideas and message than plot and although I studied and greatly enjoyed the book at college, I struggled to picture how it could be translated onto stage as during its less than 100 pages it manages a dozen different locations around the world. I personally find that stories that are based on travelling (e.g. that of Shrek the Musical or Lord of the Rings) sometimes struggle to keep the visuals variable and the story consistently interesting. 

Candide at Menier Chocolate Factory
Performance: Wednesday 8th January 2014 at 20:00
Seat: Front row
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics: Richard Wilbur
Book (adapted from Voltaire): Hugh Wheeler
Director: Matthew White
Cast included: Fra Fee (Candide), James Dreyfus (Pangloss/Cacambo/Martin), Scarlett Strallen (Cunegonde), Jackie Clune (Old Lady), David Thaxton (Maximilian), Cassidy Janson (Paquette)

Brief plot summary: Candide, the illegitimate nephew of the Baron is seen kissing the Baron's daughter, Cunegonde, and is evicted from the castle. He ends up on a trip around the world equipped with the teachings on optimism of Dr Pangloss. His experiences make him question the validity of Pangloss's philosophy. 

In the past I have visited the Menier theatre on two occasions and I was intrigued to see how this production team had decided to use the space. I find that, rather like the Union Theatre, the Menier is a highly versatile space. Candide was theatre in a round, well, in some sort of a quadrilateral more like. However, not only did they have a performance space in the middle with exists in each corner, a balcony passage ran across three walls behind the audience. In addition, the actors made use of the aisles cutting across two blocks of seats. The actors were effectively everywhere around you. The show was interactive with the actors giving things to unsuspecting audience members and putting hats on their heads. My favourite one was the judge roasting marshmallows stuck to a pitchfork over a burning torch and then feeding them to the audience members sitting nearest to him.

I think the best thing about this musical was the visuals. There was a lot going on all the time and the show included some incredible dance numbers. Sitting in the first row of such an intimate space, you always wonder whether someone might accidentally kick you in the face or something one day. Just for the record, that has not yet happened to me. The costumes were stunning also - with the audience able to see them so close up, detail in creating them would have been absolutely vital.

I have heard many speaking highly of Fra Fee but this was the first time I had seen him on stage. He was a great choice for the title role and I enjoyed his vocals. Scarlett Strallen as Candide's love interest stood out particularly by her skills as a dancer. However, she also deserves a mention for her interpretation of Glitter and Be Gay, possibly the most well-known song in the show. She nailed the challenging vocals and kept the audience laughing with her well-timed comic acting, which was appropriately exaggerated. I was further impressed by James Dreyfus's ability to move from playing one character to playing the next with ease and fluidity. 

Like the original book, the musical is very fast paced in terms of the story. I don't think I would have been able to follow had I not known it from before. There was a group of Americans sitting behind me who confessed they did not manage to stay on top of the events. However, even if you did lose the plot, the musical had a lot of entertainment value both of the satirical and physical comedy nature.
I walked out of the theatre thinking "Although this was only the first thing I have seen this year, I would not be surprised if it turned out to be the best," and coming from me, that is saying a lot.