Theatre review: Candide, Palais Theatre

Operatic technique played second fiddle to a hilarious and hugely enjoyable production. 
Candide. A group of flamboyantly dressed 18th century figures gather around a bare chested central figure.

Under the opulent roof of the Palais Theatre, Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide began with an overture that showcased his trademark flair, made famous in West Side Story, and his classical music expertise. 

The heart of the Victorian Opera’s production of Candide was not, however, Bernstein’s music – though it was performed with gusto by the ever exceptional Orchestra Victoria – but rather the direction from Dean Bryant, and the set and costume design courtesy of Dann Barber.

Candide’s book by Hugh Wheeler, based on Voltaire’s novel of the same name, is fairly uninspiring. With not enough, nor particularly thoughtful, character or relationship development, stagings of Candide risk being reduced to a bunch of people whizzing past each other onstage, singing solos and occasionally making trite comments about the meaning of life. 

But Bryant steered the cast and creative team past this potential outcome and out to a dazzling result that allowed even the emotional moments, thrown in haphazardly by Wheeler, to shine. A sense of fun vibrated through the theatre, particularly in Act 1. For the most part, Bryant relied on humour to keep the audience engaged. As soon as the overture ended, non-stop gags popped out from every corner of the stage.

There was a lot happening, really quickly, and it was a testament to the cast, crew and creative team that it was pulled off so seamlessly on opening night. Bryant was quite inventive in how he wove everyone’s ideas and talents together to get maximum laughs, resulting in the show’s two-and-a-half-hour duration, including interval, whizzing past. 

Dann Barber’s set and costume design was so thoughtful, fresh and richly textured, that it slingshotted the audience into Candide’s world of luxury and violence. There was always something that caught the eye: the Barrie Kosky-esque giant hands that made flogging seem fun, the heroine Cunégonde’s bejewelled-to-the-heavens Crocs and the Melbourne Skipping Girl sign included in a backdrop, as a nod to the production’s home state. Ten points if you spotted it. These additions and others added much needed depth to the narrative and enabled Bryant to play around with dynamic blocking.

Despite being a Victorian Opera production, Candide feels firmly like a musical. This follows a frustrating national trend of opera companies staging musicals. While Candide is technically an operetta, the majority of the cast come from a musical theatre background and Bryant made no attempt to move them toward more classical interpretations of the music. As confirmation of this step away from the operatic art form, all the leads wore individual mics. 

The role of Cunégonde has a range that requires classical training and emerging soprano Katherine Allen ran rings around the rest of the cast in terms of technique. She also kept up with the cast in her performance and physicality, something not often achieved by opera singers. Allen unsurprisingly received the largest applause of the night, after her rendition of ‘Glitter and Be Gay’, having worked the crowd into a frenzy with her well-supported, crystal clear top notes. 

The main cast didn’t have enough vocal strength to match the classically trained chorus, even with mics, and so the final chord of the operetta lost a few notes and came across as an assault of sound instead. 

Read: Book review: The Next Big Thing, James Colley

Despite this, Candide was a wonderful production, a breath of fresh air and an exciting showcase of Australian talent in both cast and crew. 

Palais Theatre, St Kilda, Melbourne
Music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Hugh Wheeler after Voltaire, lyrics by Richard Wilbur, with additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Leonard Bernstein

Conductor: Benjamin Northey
Director: Dean Bryant
Set and Costume Designer: Dann Barber

Lighting Designer: Matt Scott
Sound Designer: Samuel Moxham
Choreographer: Freya List
Assistant Conductor: Phoebe Briggs
Associate Designer: Savanna Wegman
Cast: Eddie Perfect, Lyndon Watts, Katherine Allen, Maria Mercedes, Euan Fistrovic Doidge, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, Alexander Lewis, Troy Sussman, Melanie Bird

Candide was performed 8-10 February 2024.

Jenna Schroder is an emerging arts critic, with a background in dance and voice, and an organiser at the Media, Entertainment, Arts Alliance. Outside of her union activism, Jenna can be found performing at The Improv Conspiracy, around the Melbourne comedy scene and producing independent work across multiple platforms. Twitter: @jennaschroder00