“I am so easily assimilated,” sings Jackie Clune’s Old Lady in Candide. If only one could say the same of Leonard Bernstein’s famously troubled 1956 musical, which ran for just two months in its original run when it had a book by playwright Lillian Hellman. Some of the greatest writers in musical theatre have sought to put it right in the years since, including Hugh Wheeler – Sondheim’s collaborator on Sweeney Todd – who provided a new book for director Hal Prince after Hellman withdrew hers for a heavily truncated one act version in 1973.
Bernstein would work on a version to express his own final wishes for the piece in a production for Scottish Opera in 1988, and that’s the version that London’s enduringly ambitious Menier Chocolate Factory is now staging as its Christmas musical. But creative teams still can’t resist the urge to tweak it again, this time with director Matthew White providing his own edit, just as John Caird did for his 1999 production at the National Theatre.
It has to be said that it is far preferable to the updated, modernised version that transferred from the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris to English National Opera in 2008, that set the action within a giant TV set and sledgehammered in a commentary on modern global politics. But in re-making it again as a sumptuously produced medieval costume pageant, it now feels playful and polished but also still naggingly pointless, too.
Like the Old Lady who is afflicted with only one buttock, the show remains half-assed. The material and our title character’s dogged pursuit of Cunegonde, the love of his life, from Westphalia to Holland, Lisbon, Paris, Cadiz, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, El Dorado and Venice, is still one damn thing after another. There’s no investment in any of the characters or their tiresome journeys.
However, there are compensating pleasures: this may just be the most perfect concert score ever written, since it features one great Bernstein number after another. Written the year before his great urban masterpiece West Side Story, it has the air of an operetta, regularly influenced by Gilbert and Sullivan. But it has its own dazzling musical craftsmanship and tunefulness, exemplified in such bravura numbers as Glitter And Be Gay, one of the great coloratura soprano songs in the repertoire. It also has one of the most beautiful finales of any musical with the song Make Our Garden Grow.
Glitter is thrillingly performed by Scarlett Strallen, who also has a mean high kick in Adam Cooper’s mostly under-utilised choreography that looks at its best in the second act opening number. And Make Our Garden Grow, led by Fra Fee’s delightful, boyish Candide, stops the heart.
As in Pippin, revived at the Menier in 2011, here’s a musical that ends by celebrating the ability of the most ordinary of human activities to make something exceptional. But despite the miracle of inventiveness and resourcefulness shown by Matthew White’s production, the show uses exceptional talents to make something that is ultimately ordinary. Played to a venue that has been reconfigured entirely in the round in Paul Farnsworth’s rustically beautiful platforms that wrap around the auditorium, it is a musical in constant danger of seeming strenuous, bloated and effortful.