Candide

American High School Theatre Festival is a regular in Edinburgh, and there are several reasons to check them out. For a start, this is one of the few places you can see big-cast plays with decent production values in today’s cash-strapped, solo-show, black curtain Fringe. It’s a relief to the eyes. Secondly the tickets cheap, for an equally cash-strapped audience. And thirdly, when they do musicals they often bring to them a discipline and energy which comes from presenting a form central to US culture.

There are fewer musicals than usual in AHSMF this year. However, Candide is there in Morningside in a venue which also boasts the best tea shop in the city. It’s an unwieldy masterpiece. Leonard Bernstein’s music is a constant, and a constant delight. But the book and lyrics have been through numerous alterations and additions, yet never seemed quite right. People as diverse as Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim can claim some involvement.

It is an adaptation of Voltaire’s classic satire on 18th century optimism. Our hero and heroine, Candide and Cunegonde, are brought up to believe everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. They cling to this belief despite plague, earthquakes, being sold into slavery and getting killed several times. The final stoic message is ‘stick to cultivating your own garden, because at least it’s good exercise and doesn’t harm anyone else.’

This Hugh Wheeler version is filleted down to 90 minutes, gaining narrative clarity in the process but losing some musical highlights (the glorious finale is truncated, which is a pity). Its greatest asset is its two principals, Tommy Prast and Kathryn Kilger. Prast as Candide has a sweet voice, a sweet innocent face and is a decent actor. Kilger is a radiant soprano with good comic timing; technically she isn’t quite up to the show-stopping number ‘Glitter and be Gay’, but it’s an intelligent stab, and in three or four years she will be a force to be reckoned with. Other performances are variable: great comedy from Olivia van den Berg as the Old Lady (with one buttock), but a small singing voice; Austin Sultzbach in multiple roles needs far more projection and less gabble.

The choreography is uncredited, but it is bland and repetitive. This is a waste, because the one thing kids can do is dance with zest and discipline. The accompaniment is solo piano, and the piano reduction of this score is a pig to play. Patrick Nugent is frankly not up to it, though he gets good sound out of the chorus.

Reviews by Peter Scott-Presland

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The Blurb

Featuring a legendary score by Leonard Bernstein. Part sophisticated operetta, part wacky screwball comedy with shades of Monty Python, this funny irreverent satire is a musical expression of Voltaire's tongue in cheek send-up of optimistic philosophies.

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