Candide: a wonderful, whimsical adventure

This term, the Oxford Playhouse is putting forward a dynamic cure to 5th Week Blues: a light-hearted romp across the 18th-century world, complete with a motley crew of characters who gather around the hapless young Candide.

Even in Oxford – where no one questions the inclusion of Philosophical Consultants in the crew of your operetta – Candide isn’t the most obvious choice for a student production. Voltaire’s story has aged admirably, but some parts of it are difficult to follow for the modern listener. Plus, it’s an operetta about philosophy – usually the topic of all work and no plays. I must confess that, while taking my seat in the crowded Playhouse, I wondered if the performance would go over my head a bit.

Happily, the laughs were not lost on me.

The question on every character’s mind is how to survive in a world where everything is going wrong

The joy of Candide, as I learned through this excellent student production, is not just in the luscious depiction of its era, from the idyllic cottages of Westphalia to treacherous streets of Venice. It is in the life and energy that new performers can breathe into the story – indeed, it was the particular energy of this ensemble which made the operetta feel so fresh. It was composed by Leonard Bernstein in 1956, based on the 1759 novella of the same name, and yet its themes are as relevant today as they ever were. After all, the question on every character’s mind is how to survive in a world where everything is going wrong… sound familiar?

For a show with countless twists and turns, Candide is great at keeping your attention. From the opening overture to the final bows, the impressive ensemble filled the theatre with clear, captivating voices. In the opening Chorale, they fascinated me with their professionalism as a chorus, as well as with their lively acting as the jolly citizens of Westphalia. (As well-informed citizens, they were naturally reading OxStus as they poured onstage. If this was a cold marketing ploy to win me over, it worked like a charm.)

Set designer Christina Hill ought to be proud of her work; the minimalist decoration, with cartoonish clouds overhead and boxes covered with words from the original book, allowed imagination to take over as the characters raced across continents. The inclusion of a plush armchair and a reading table beneath a paper tree on the stage served to remind us of the constant oversight of Voltaire, who appears in the performance as the narrator. This was helpful – perhaps even necessary – for the scenes which do not translate perfectly to the modern stage. Light-hearted references to rape and religion were not greeted with the laughs the libretto seemingly intended them for, but they were made excusable by the visual reminders of the piece’s period setting.

The minimalist decoration allowed imagination to take over as the characters raced across continents

Bringing the set to life with the gift of sound and vision were lighting designer Jennifer Hurd and sound designers John Paul and Nat Davies. They illuminated Candide’s world in more ways than one; the audience felt the warmth of his rural upbringing in the golden tones and gentle birdsong of Westphalia, and ached with him in the snow as he was exiled into the harsh blue light of the outside world. These designers paid attention to the details of the piece, and it showed in the meticulous planning and expert execution of their designs on the night.

It was an impressive set, and the ensemble did it justice. As male and female leads, Josh Blunsden (Candide) and Laura Coppinger (Cunegonde) were well-matched; their delighted hug at the curtain call showed the mutual trust and respect behind their onstage chemistry as the two troubled lovers. Blunsden brought the sweetness and innocence of Candide to the forefront of his performance, and created real empathy for the character. Coppinger stunned with her confident soprano voice, which stood out even in large chorus numbers. In Glitter and Be Gay, Cunegonde’s frenzied solo and one of the operetta’s most memorable moments, Coppinger deftly overcame the considerable challenges of the piece and delivered a hilarious performance which ended in one of the loudest cheers of the night.

In Glitter and Be Gay, Coppinger delivered a hilarious performance which ended in one of the loudest cheers of the night

Amelia Gabriel (Old Woman) played brilliantly against Coppinger’s Cunegonde, with the pair forming an unlikely double act in We Are Women. Watching Gabriel react and play off her fellow performers was a show in itself – even her ridiculously exaggerated accent gave the Old Woman an endearing (if slightly batty) appeal. Max Cadman played the faithful Cacambo, pushing the plot along with clear delivery and confidence.

Gavin Fleming and David Garrick were perhaps the funniest performers of the night as Voltaire and Pangloss respectively. Fleming expertly guided the action from the sidelines, maintaining a plummy accent throughout, and wittily narrated Candide’s many misfortunes. Garrick took a more prominent role in the story, and perfectly conveyed the duplicity and sliminess of the optimistic philosopher. There was a cost to their exuberance, as their amplified emotions sometimes meant their lines got lost and the plot became confusing to follow – nonetheless, both made up for occasionally clumsy diction with their enthusiasm. They were equally capable singers, their voices giving strength and body to the chorus.

Freddie Crowley (Maximilian), Jessica Bradley (Paquette) and John Lee (Martin) formed an admirable supporting cast of recurring characters. Crowley’s disdainful aristocrat played well against Bradley’s coquettish maid, and both got laughs with their skilful comic timing. Lee’s street sweeper served a more cynical role – his maniacal Words, Words, Words highlighted the frightening and disjointed undertones just beneath the surface of the whimsical operetta.

Even those who took up minor speaking roles created vibrant, memorable characters

The talented ensemble never failed to amuse. The staging of Candide’s voyages made the most of the whole cast to an impressive end – during Candide’s shipwreck, cast members held ropes and shifted across stage to recreate the form of a foundering ship. They reached their pinnacle as a group during the final piece, Make Our Garden Grow, and filled the theatre with beautiful harmonies. Even those who took up minor speaking roles created vibrant, memorable characters.

In lauding the cast, we cannot forget to mention the show-stealers of the second act: the two red sheep of El Dorado. Heavy-footed and open-mouthed, they induced the most giggles from the audience with their invasion of the stalls. They sustained the comic tempo of the operetta and provided light relief from less exciting moments, such as the King’s Barcarolle towards the end of the performance.

The band, under the masterful direction of Joe Davies, provided the backbone of the show. Special credit must go to the brass and wind sections, who were most prominent in the score and complemented the performers on stage with great energy. From the opening overture, the musicians delivered a sound of professional quality and gave the operetta a youthful feel with their enthusiasm. These are some of the most talented performers Oxford has to offer, and audience members should draw their eyes away from the performers on stage for a moment to truly appreciate the quality of music coming from the pit at the Playhouse this week.

The musicians delivered a sound of professional quality and gave the operetta a youthful feel

Predictably, Candide suffered a few opening night snags: microphones issues beset the performance, and the singers were occasionally overpowered by the swelling sounds of the band, rendering the action somewhat harder to follow. There were fleeting moments when the performers stalled and seemed to be searching for their line, though they quickly recovered their momentum. Nonetheless, experience of the show will iron out these problems, and will leave the show a polished production worthy of professional status.

As a light-hearted operetta, Candide’s main objective was to create laughter for a few hours on a freezing Wednesday night. Needless to say, this objective was achieved; I left the theatre feeling uplifted (which was something of a surprise, knowing that Voltaire wrote Candide to reject optimism). I also left feeling thoroughly impressed. Oxford productions don’t come much slicker than this – only the best win the bids for the Playhouse, after all – and few can boast a stronger cast or band. If you’re looking for a whimsical break from the real world this week, get yourself to the Playhouse and get ready for the trip of a lifetime. I promise that, even for those who shy away from opera as I once did, it will not fail to entertain. If any performance in Oxford can win people over to opera, it’s this one.

Candide is on at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 11 November.