Theater 2020’s ‘Candide’ nearly pitch perfect

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Watching a musical in a church is always a risky proposition. No venue screams “low-budget” or “community theater” more loudly than a communal religious space. But a church setting also advertises a theater company’s modest, down-to-earth approach — overly innovative interpretations and awful special effects tend to appear in other venues.

Theater 2020’s “Candide,” presented in the Saint Charles Borromeo Church in downtown Brooklyn, is a small, low-budget affair, but the modest setting shows off an earnest and talented cast that makes the best of the farcical classic.

But for one exception, the cast looks young enough to get carded. Cheaply costumed and un-microphoned, they resemble an exceptionally talented high school ensemble as they sing their way through the silly score.

“Candide” is considered a classic by most musical theater buffs, partly for Voltaire’s satirical storyline and partly because it is a musical that celebrates an ensemble. Though the titular character and leading lady Cunegonde do a good deal of solo singing, it is the group efforts that carry the operetta’s slapstick giddiness.

The cast performs wonderfully, their voices boosted by the cavernous space. Ryan Farnsworth as Candide is especially noteworthy for earnestly singing the show’s occasional ballads.

But then there is the infamous song “Glitter and Be Gay.” In many respects, “Candide” has an unfairly challenging score. Minus the few operatic moments, the music is adorable but not too difficult to sing. This cast handles it beautifully, but almost any high school troupe could easily put on all but one song of “Candide.”

“Glitter and Be Gay,” the curveball “Candide” throws its leading lady, is widely regarded as the most technically challenging show tune. The high notes, crazy jumps and intricate passages alone would qualify it as such, but the song also requires spot-on comedic timing.

In short, the song is a tall order for Ellie Bensinger, who plays Cunegonde. However capably she handles the rest of the show, Bensinger is one of the cast’s more amateur members — her bio still mentions a small role in “Titanic,” a film that came out almost 20 years ago. It is unfair to expect her to sing “Glitter and Be Gay” very well. She manages, but barely.

Her interpretation is more technically correct than it is funny, and it is not too hard to pick out her imitation of other renditions. Yet, it is hard to hold the fiendishly difficult song against her when in all other arenas, the cast is extremely talented. When the song comes to its end, the cast can go back to its honest and charming rendition of an enjoyable show.

Leora Rosenberg is a staff writer. Email her at theater@nyunews.com.
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