CANDIDE in Melbourne
Victorian Opera, Thursday February 8, 2024. Palais Theatre, St Kilda, Melbourne.
Music – Leonard Bernstein; Book – Hugh Wheeler, after Voltaire; Lyrics – Richard Wilbur, with additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, & Leonard Bernstein; orchestrations – Leonard Bernstein & Hershy Kay; Musical continuity & additional orchestrations – John Mauceri
Conductor — Benjamin Northey; Stage Director — Dean Bryant; Voltaire / Pangloss Eddie Perfect; Candide Lyndon Watts; Cunégonde Katherine Allen; Old Lady Maria Mercedes; Maximilian Euan Fistrovic Doidge; Paquette Melanie Bird; Cacambo Eddie Muliaumaseali’i; Governor / Vanderdenur Alexander Lewis; Martin Troy Sussman; Orchestra Victoria
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There are any number of reasons for why Leonard Bernstein’s Candide never quite broke into the mainstream consciousness the same way his West Side Story did. Too many reasons, in fact, to go into here. But highlights include the fact that it’s overlong, calculatedly crass, and unwieldy — the bastard child of a thousand maniacs. It also makes its point, and then some, about 158 times before intermission alone. Like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s an awful lot of an awful lot, and you get the point very early on in proceedings; there is much to said for the red pen and keen dramaturgical scissors of a skilled editor.
No man’s land
It also sits awkwardly in that perennially curious no man’s land between opera and musical theatre. Officially it’s an operetta, but I don’t use the term “sits awkwardly” lightly… Bernstein’s musical equivalent to a drunken 3:00AM kebab avoids easy or comfortable siloing in any single designation, as evidenced by the ease with which it can be produced across a broad and inconsistent spectrum. Even Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the big kahuna of the designation debate, veers more defiantly towards one silo in particular over either of the other two.
With a cast that favors commercial musical theatre performers over opera singers, it’s no surprise that Dean Bryant’s production for Victorian Opera comes across as more of a Broadway revue than anything vaguely operatic, or even operettic. The only two cast members to give Bernstein’s vocal writing any serious classical wellie were Katherine Allen as Cunégonde and Alexander Lewis as the aforementioned thousand maniacs (Governor, Vanderdenur, and many etceteras), and both stood tall in the evening because of it.
Lyndon Watts as Candide has a fine pop-musical-theatre voice, and was a pleasing straight man to the show’s rogues gallery of clowns. His sincerest moments were more mawkish than genuinely affecting, but this has more to do with the work’s own structural flaws and its take on archetypes than anything else. His flamboyance elsewhere struck me as more Lyndon than Candide, but it was charming, funny, and perfectly in keeping with Bryant’s camp aesthetic.
Eddie Perfect, one of our nation’s pre-eminent musical comedy performers and creatives, was entirely inside his comfort zone as Voltaire (Narrator) & Pangloss, delivering solid, tireless comedic lazzi and somehow managing to overcome the structurally mercenary, and thus ultimately rather thankless, dual role. Frankly, it strikes me as something of a signature role in the making… the kind he could spend the rest of his days repeatedly revisiting in any number of productions.
The aforementioned Ms Allen brought the house down with a blitzkrieg rendition of “Glitter and be gay”, as remarkable for its comedic inventiveness and commitment as its stellar vocal command. She was a charming and engaged ingénue throughout, and managed to find an unusually solid and affecting stillness in the final, more somber closing moments of the evening.
Genuine onstage charisma
Melanie Bird as Paquette had little to do beyond move furniture, strike poses, and randomly attempt to solicit the audience, but she nonetheless had as much genuine onstage charisma as I’ve seen in a mortal, and brought deliriously happy-making energy to the stage every time she set foot on it. Euan Fistrovic Doidge as Maximilian was the camp, the whole camp, and nothing but the camp, and second only to La Bird in the effortless attention-grabbing stakes. Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, luxury casting indeed, was a stalwart Cacambo, bringing much needed basso gravitas to the ensembles and real presence as an actor. As the second of the evening’s utilitarian rude mechanicals, along with the aforementioned Mr Lewis, Troy Sussman was also luxury casting, albeit curiously under-served as a talent, sadly, despite his obvious commitment and necessarily ubiquitous presence across the evening. Lewis, for his part(s), brought a comedic and physical maturity to his various miscellaneous plot devices, more than matching his aforementioned vocal strength. Maria Mercedes was a perfectly stalwart and dependable Old Lady.
The chorus was about as characterful a collection of individuals as one could hope for, whilst simultaneously being musically cohesive and rich, whether standing in a perfect line at the back of the stage behind the onstage orchestra, or interacting with the principals in the main playing space. Benjamin Northey and Orchestra Victoria were crisp and energized, winging through the score with élan.
Dann Barber’s all-purpose unit set was deceptively simple and highly effective, proof positive that even in a grand, capacious venue like the Palais, and within a lumbering, overstated comedic farce, sometimes the simplest scenic conceits, well-executed, are all that is required.
Silencing the grumblers
While Victorian Opera has not made me a fan of Bernstein’s operettic musical, it has certainly made me a fan of the team behind this particular production. Although far from perfect, live theatre and human imperfection both being what they are, the sheer maniacal ebullience of the evening cancelled doubt, and could not but win over even the dourest of grumblebums.