With a massive cast, a huge space and a band to match, Barricade Arts have brought a real spectacle to the Playhouse in the form of Bernstein and Sondheim’s musical adaptation of Candide. In just under three hours, we follow the hapless Candide (Josh Blunsden) on a surreal, satirical romp through various lands, encountering a plethora of absurd characters along the way. Candide’s staunch optimism comes heavily under fire as he encounters more and more of the world, somehow simultaneously making us laugh and reminding us of our often horrific human predicament.
Musically, the cast create a beautiful sound together, providing some of the most affecting moments of the piece. Laura Coppinger’s incredible voice soars, and Max Cadman’s heartfelt singing as Cacambo provided a welcome sense of genuine emotion. Mic problems are somewhat inevitable on a Playhouse opening night, and the cast must be commended for their professional handling of these issues.
While the quality of acting is not entirely consistent across the board, there are some standout performances. Amelia Gabriel shines as the Old Woman, keeping the audience firmly in the palm of her hand with her hilarious physicality and vocal dexterity. Freddie Crowley deserves a mention for his polished and hilarious portrayal of the pompous Maximillian, while Gavin Fleming’s poise and timing as Voltaire is consistently impressive and an invaluable contribution to the piece’s cohesion. Nils Behling, Alex Buchanan and Jessica Bradley provide memorable cameos from the chorus, and Blunsden is perfectly cast as the innocent, endearing eponymous hero. Problems with diction made it difficult to grasp all of the dialogue in a few instances last night, though this is a problem easily rectified.
Director Jonny Danciger is clearly very in tune with the satire of the piece, pitching its humour exactly right and drawing big laughs from the audience. When jokes landed, they really worked, but sometimes gags were unfortunately lost in a clunky transition or a slow technical change. Jennifer Hurd’s lighting design is generally excellent, however, gelling the action together with quick, colourful changes that make particularly effective use of the cyc. Christina Hill’s set is expertly crafted and aesthetically pleasing, evoking an endearing, child-like feel to complement the (often morally questionable) action of the script. Large cubes, with what I assume is Voltaire’s original text printed on them, are moved around by the cast to cleverly create numerous settings, though these transitions could have been slicker at points.
The quality of blocking and choreography varies throughout the production. Some of the larger ensemble scenes are a little static, but scenes with less characters (notably the song shared by the Old Woman and Cunegonde) come to life excellently and display far more imaginative movement. Moments where inventive use is made of simple props, such as wooden poles to create the impression of a ship, are visually stunning, and provide the most rousing instances of full chorus involvement. While this show isn’t heavy on dancing, the choreography there is sometimes seems underwhelming compared with the singing. I can’t help but feel that full commitment to every physical choice among the cast could raise the energy tenfold. Many aspects can afford to be bigger, to really feel unafraid to occupy the space they have chosen.
While this production contains excellent performances and is clearly born out of an intensely creative vision, it lacks in energetic consistency, and was a little rough around the edges last night. Individual scenes and staging choices stuck out a little too much as better than others, making the show seem unsure of itself at points. All things considered, however, Candide is a highly entertaining, musically accomplished production and well worth a watch.