Caroline O’Connor gets candid about Candide

Musical theatre star Caroline O’Connor is excited to take to the stage with Candide, an operetta made on a grand scale through a collaboration between State Theatre Company SA, State Opera and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

May 21, 2024, updated May 21, 2024
Alexander Lewis as Candide and Caroline O'Connor as The Old Lady in the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs' 2018 presentation of 'Candide'. Photo: Grant Leslie / supplied

Alexander Lewis as Candide and Caroline O'Connor as The Old Lady in the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs' 2018 presentation of 'Candide'. Photo: Grant Leslie / supplied

Caroline O’Connor says Adelaide audiences will enjoy an “unexpected pleasure” when they see Candide, a comedic operetta based on the 1759 novella by Voltaire.

O’Connor’s character in the Broadway hit is called “The Old Lady”, and she admits she was a little taken aback by the name at first.

“How dare they call a character that,” she says.

“But it’s tongue-in-cheek because if anything she’s nothing like that. She still thinks she’s got it all going on, so it’s kind of fun to have that character name, but actually be doing everything but that.”

The show, featuring music written by Leonard Bernstein, tells the story of the naïve Candide, played by Alexander Lewis, who falls in love with the beautiful Cunegonde, performed bu Annie Aitken.

The Adelaide production is a creative collaboration on a massive scale involving State Theatre Company South Australia, State Opera, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the choral power of students from the Elder Conservatorium.

O’Connor says this marriage of South Australia’s biggest arts companies will make for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“You are not going to see this spectacular show done on this scale for a long time again. It’s a rare thing,” she says.

“Also, considering who wrote it, with Leonard Bernstein, you’re talking about quality, so I know it’s a cliché but you’d kick yourself if you didn’t see it.”

State Theatre artistic director Mitchell Butel is co-directing Candide alongside co-director and choreographer Amy Campbell. Butel also takes to the stage to play Candide’s teacher and mentor Pangloss. The cast also includes John Longmuir, Michaela Burger, Rosie Hosking, Ezra Juanta and Rod Schultz.

And in a novel piece of casting, Adelaide celebrity Matt Gilbertson (AKA Hans) is stepping out of his comfort zone to star in his first operetta, playing the role of Cunegonde’s brother Maximillian.

Caroline O’Connor, pictured (right) with Annie Aitken, is reprising the role she played in a Sydney production of Candide. Photo: Grant Leslie

State Opera head of music and chorus master Anthony Hunt will conduct the show, with lavish costume design by Brendan de la Hay and set design by Ailsa Paterson.

O’Connor knows her role well, having played “The Old Lady” in the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ 2018 presentation of Candide, which was also directed by Butel. She describes the operetta as “basically a philosophical-type story”.

“It’s about optimism,” she says. “You see all sorts of different suffering and tragedies and death and sex, and everything you could want in a piece is involved in this operetta.

“All of those subject matters are talked about, of course, and because it’s directed by Mitchell, it’s done with a wonderful sense of fun, because those subject matters can be a little heavy.

“There are a lot of religious comparisons that go on within the play, as well. There’s tragedies, setbacks, people’s sufferings, but the priorities are trying to help our fellow man and …just be a bit more thoughtful, really.

“It sounds moralistic but it’s about being able to help other people. It has had other titles – including Everything’s for the Best, The Optimist and The Age of Enlightenment – so it’s about the failings of society and how we could probably do a lot better if we were just to help each other out a little bit in the journey with whatever we have to confront.”

Alexander Lewis as Candide in the 2018 Sydney production of Candide. Photo: Grant Leslie

O’Connor has been a mainstay of the global musical theatre industry for more than four decades, making her Australian musical debut in Oklahoma! in 1982.

She was born in England to Irish parents and was a talented Irish dancer as a child. The family moved to Adelaide’s northern suburbs when O’Connor was five. She remembers visiting relatives nearby in Elizabeth, dust storms, and singing and dancing around the family home.

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When she was nine, O’Connor’s mother Maureen moved the entire family to Sydney so her daughter could attend the best Irish dancing school in Australia.

“I just remember thinking at the age of nine what an enormous responsibility [it was] for my mum to do something like that,” she says.

O’Connor went on to compete internationally and win awards as a dancer during her teen years. At 17, she trained with the Royal Ballet School in London, before finding her passion for musical theatre and making her mark on stages across the world.

The all-rounder has worked on the West End and Broadway in major roles in shows including Mack and Mabel (for which she received an Olivier nomination for Best Actress in a Musical in 1996), A Chorus Line, West Side Story, Man of La Mancha, Funny Girl, End of the Rainbow, Bombshells (a one-woman play written especially for her) and 9 to 5.

O’Connor also famously starred as Nini Legs in the Air in Baz Luhrmann’s hit 2001 film Moulin Rouge, and made her Broadway debut in 2003 as Velma Kelly in Chicago.

“It’s funny [when I was young], my mum used to say, ‘Will you be quiet? Please just shut up’, when I was dancing and tapping around the place and singing. Then when I got older, she’d say, ‘Get up and sing a song’ and I’d say, ‘No Mum, I do this for a living now’.

“I had no idea my career would go to the places it has gone; I just loved to be on stage. Once I discovered music I was smitten, and I think that’s what happens when you find your thing.

“The amount of work [in Australia] was very limited and that’s why I moved to England when I was 21 because I thought, ‘I need to learn, I need to work with lots of people and learn my craft because otherwise if I stay here…’. You might not work for years because there’s just not enough work.”

The performer stayed in England for 14 years. She began spending more time in Australia from 1998. She and husband Barrie Shaw, a musician, sold their Sydney home pre-COVID and now live in Noosa, Queensland.

O’Connor says it’s a pleasure working once again under the direction of Mitchell Butel, who brings a great energy to each production.

“I think because he is a performer, too, that does have a lot to do with it. The way he deals with actors, he knows what it feels like and he has impeccable timing, of course.

“I did Piaf with Mitchell, I did Man of La Mancha with Mitchell, so I know what his work ethic is like, which is unbelievable. He is also very strong in the rehearsal room – he’s wonderful. He just creates a wonderful atmosphere in the room of fun and enjoyment and respect.

“At the end of the show we have this magnificent song, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’, which is about cultivating your garden, as an analogy. With the choir on top of the orchestra, I can’t get through that song without crying.

“It touches you and it makes you reflect and think – and that’s what theatre is all about, isn’t it?”

Candide plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre from May 23-25.

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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