Church Hill Theatre
At the Edinburgh Fringe you have to take risks about what you see, and just occasionally you are so amply rewarded that you remember why the fringe exists. An ensemble entirely comprised of members from Trinity Prep School (Winter Park, Florida) had come over for four performances of Bernstein's wonderful operetta Candide, and I was just bowled over by the quality of what they achieved. I talked to them afterwards to offer my sincere congratulations and they graciously accepted them, but the musical director Patrick Nugent didn't give the impression that anything was out of the ordinary - apparently they do about five shows a year, and if they're all of this standard, we are doing something seriously wrong over here in the UK. That 16, 17 and 18 year olds could not just perform this famously challenging piece, but do such justice to it, is an absolutely extraordinary feat.
The acting was uniformly excellent, about as good as I ever expect to see from kids of this age, all very believable, funny, and characterful. But the singing too was superb - always immaculately in tune, expressing the text brilliantly and just so controlled. None of course have mature musical theatre or operatic voices, and all still have a lot to work on technically, but they are all so securely on their way and singing so well that none have anything to fear. I asked whether this was a selective school for music, but the answer was no; to be able to cast every role in this opera superbly from a pool of "normal" kids, is amazing. Those that shone the most were Tommy Prast's Candide (sincere and very likeable), Riley Suter's Pangloss/Voltaire (smirking, urbane, wry), Olivia van den Berg's Old lady (outrageously and hilariously drawn), and above all Kathryn Kilger's Cunégonde. Again one has to remind oneself that Kilger is still only in high school, and of course the blending of registers and coloratura will not be in place yet, but this could well be a voice of the highest quality, already sounding very secure and focussed, with a lovely lyric timbre, and a top that just floats and floats with the most effortless beauty imaginable. I know sopranos twice her age that would kill for high notes like that.
Candide has never been a repertory mainstay probably because it really is an operetta and not a musical, it's very difficult to perform, has too many scenes and a confused structure, and is just far too subversive for the American mainstream - there's an abundance of rape, death, syphilis and criticism of Christianity. But it's also witty, fantastically well written, contains much of Bernstein's very best music, and has one of the most moving endings in lyric theatre. What a pleasure to see it so well done.