Candide, Coliseum, London

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The Independent Culture

Half a century after being eviscerated by its producers and misunderstood by its audiences, Leonard Bernstein's Candide has Robert Carsen and Ian Burton to thank for its sharpest and most flamboyant reincarnation yet.

It isn’t perfect; it does not and cannot solve the essential problem that a pithy novella should not a long-winded musical make. But it brilliantly establishes a point of departure from which Voltaire’s satire is at once more immediate and more relevant than Lillian Hellman and Bernstein originally made it, and it positively revels in one of the most original scores ever written for the Broadway stage. The composer would definitely have switched on to this production.

Actually, we all do. Michael Levine’s stunning set is an optical illusion taking us deep inside the cathode ray tube of a gigantic TV set, circa 1956. And even as Bernstein’s racy overture (the first in Broadway history to stop the show before it’s begun) is establishing the crazy, slap-dash of Voltaire’s narrative, Carsen is dropping us into 50’s America at the time of the show’s premiere with a series of film images (courtesy of “Volt Air”) depicting an age of hopefulness and optimism. Our journey – and Candide’s – in search of the American Dream has begun and on the front lawn of a desirable residence looking remarkably like The White House (for Westphalia Castle read West Failure) we meet our “first family” of principals.

It was Bernstein and Hellman’s idea that Candide’s tutor, the philosopher Dr. Pangloss, should, as a re-embodiment of Voltaire, become our master of ceremonies. Subsequent rewrites have made this more explicit and here we have the brilliant Alex Jennings slipping nonchalantly between the two – not to mention Pangloss’s alter ego, the cynic Martin, whose belief in “the worst of all possible worlds” achieves greater resonance in this production with his bitter laughing song “Words, Words, Words”. Jennings nails that.

But the real kicker in this staging is that Bernstein and Hellman’s original point of departure – the McCarthy House Committee on Un-American Activities (which they saw as such a tempting parallel with the Spanish Inquisition) - is no longer merely implicit. This latter day auto-da-fe comes replete with a jolly chorus line of Ku Klux Clan. And it sets a scene for what is now more explicitly an essay on the corrosion of the American Dream, the death of optimism. Cunegonde’s classic “Glitter and Be Gay” is now an obvious homage to Marilyn’s “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” (complete with tuxedoed, jewel-bearing admirers) uncomfortably pointing up the way in which the system prostitutes its iconic stars. Anna Christy managed the demise far better than she did the stardom and was disappointing in that number, neither convincing in the coloratura nor the irony of it. I know it’s asking a lot, but it takes a star to play a star.

Toby Spence certainly proved himself to be one charting Candide’s odyssey from innocence to disillusionment while sweetly voicing Bernstein’s most beautiful ballads – none more so than his final reluctant aria of acceptance “Nothing More Than This”. And there were robust characterisations from Bonaventura Bottone and a corking turn from Beverley Klein as the Old Lady of “mysterious origins”. Her appearance as an unlikely Las Vegshowgirl still wearing her horn-rimmed specs is alone worth the price of admission.

Rumon Gamba does the sensational score proud right through to that final glorious anthem of unfettered optimism “Make Our Garden Grow”. But Carsen is more equivocal than Bernstein. Earlier in the evening he depicts world leaders sunning themselves on a sea of oil. Now come TV images of the cost to our planet. His hopeful pessimism is overwhelming.

To 12 July (020-7632 8300)