Before I switched from French to Theatre Studies at uni, I had to study the 18th century novel Candide. Although I can't now completely recall the complex plot and only vaguely recall that its satire is based on sending up the coming-of-age Bildungsroman and picaresque or melodramatic novels of the period, I do remember that it's a short book – it is claimed that Voltaire wrote it in three days – and now wonder why it's such a long musical.
Set fifty years before the grinding misery of Les Misérables when France was still a hectic playground at the court of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour, and of arts and thought in the Age of Enlightenment for intellectuals throughout the country, Candide tests the Leibnitzian philosophical theory that "all is for the best" by following its eponymous hero and his friends through a series of testing disasters and tribulations on a journey round the world which no one could survive. When he does, optimism is justified and there's a sort of homily at the end which says "there's no place like home".
Technically, its closest literary parallel is Gulliver's Travels but the plot could equally make a traditional pantomime – the adventures of Dick Whittington are no more daunting than Candide's and the incorporation of ship's voyages, wrongful accusations, the hero's love for a woman above his social station, cheeky maids, wily and deceitful masters, and a dame character whose only name is "the Old Woman" bring us ever closer to the genre.
So despite the availability of countless versions of the operetta, the Menier has wisely selected and further pruned the 1988 Scottish Opera revision which is closest to conventional musical theatre and treats the whole enterprise as a glorious romp. It's still two and three-quarter hours long, but the first half at least flies by.
We start with the magnificent rollicking Bernstein overture during which you can savour the playing of Seann Alderking's nifty and indefatigable eight-piece orchestra (later including some sweetly atmospheric accordion from Ian Watson) heralding the bouncing jigging parade of the entire cast in splendid costumes bathed in Paul Anderson's lyrical lighting scheme. Matthew White's staging in the round with a composite set by Paul Farnsworth exploits the auditorium to its maximum, even squeezing in galleries behind the seating where the cast gather to great effect for several of the chorales.
Among such a strong and evenly-talented cast who share many roles, it's a challenge to be a stand-out star but as Cunégonde Scarlett Strallen shows possibly her finest work: the coloratura of "Glitter And Be Gay" stretched even Kristin Chenoweth when I saw her at the Lincoln Center in New York but Strallen nails it with a combination of accurate notes and an energetic jewel-box plundering and chandelier-swinging routine which brings the house down.
Ulster-born Fra Fee sings Candide with a lush and welcoming tenor, but maybe lacks some of the charisma to sustain the hero in the hearts of the audience throughout. His tutor, Dr Pangloss is played with a drily sardonic wit by James Dreyfus and giving a cynical side to the character made him more three-dimensional than in other productions. Similarly, David Thaxton imbued Maximilian with much more than chinless stupidity, and again has a warm and elegant voice. Jackie Clune takes on the role of the Old Woman and confidently manages the difficult aria "I Am Easily Assimilated" and blends deliciously with Strallen in "What's The Use" but her Polish accent is alarmingly less 18th century Mitteleuropean than Jennifer Coolidge as Sophie in 2 Broke Girls.
Because the plot is so episodic, a continual round of fortunes won and lost, hangings, floggings, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, coups and an auto-da-fé, it feels repetitive and some of the music is taken at too leisurely a pace but when it all wells into a sensationally-harmonised climax with "Make Your Garden Grow", your heart will be genuinely light.
It has been a stunning year for the Menier: The Color Purple garnered universally enthusiastic reviews and Merrily We Roll Along transferred to the West End. Candide looks set to join this catalogue of triumphs.