Don’t overlook the possibility of renting the local church.
I know, I know. Pews instead of theater seats means no arm rests –aside from one on each aisle and one in the middle. Sometime a church’s acoustics can make lines and lyrics echo or sound fuzzy.
What I’ve more often found, however, is that artistic directors worry that if they rent a church, their religious landlords will want control over programming. Anything even mildly controversial will be nixed.
Perhaps. But perhaps not. Theater 2020’s recent production of CANDIDE took place at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Brooklyn Heights. Because it’s a Roman Catholic Church – and CANDIDE takes more than a few pot shots at that religion – one might assume that the church’s powers-that-be would have shut it down while insisting “It must be so.” After all, the Spanish Inquisition – a solid part of the show’s first act — was not the Golden Age of the Catholic Church. But Theater 2020’s producing artistic directors Judith Jarosz and David Fuller found clear sailing for their production.
This was a fine CANDIDE that made good use of the church’s altar and center aisle. That raised pulpit onto which priests must climb stairs to give their sermons? What an ideal platform for Voltaire, who has a lot of sermonizing to do. Yes, in Hugh Wheeler’s 1974 rewrite of Lillian Hellman’s 1956 script, Voltaire is actually a character (and quite a crusty one) who functions as a narrator.
Director Fuller gave Greg Horton, his Voltaire, a felicitous if anachronistic prop: the words he was reading were on that computer paper that we used to use in the ‘80s. Remember that endless stream of paper with the light green and white alternating stripes, perforated into pages that allowed for separation, but otherwise was one long attached ream? Horton got quite a few laughs from the way he searched through the long river of paper while trying to find his place.
(If you don’t remember this style of paper, let your youth be your consolation.)
It’s a heady show. No other musical includes the term “quod erat demonstrandum” and its abbreviation “Q.E.D.” in one of its early numbers. None of the characters bothers to explain that it means “which had to be demonstrated.” CANDIDE‘s audience is expected to know.
The lyrics, predominantly by Richard Wilbur, offer wit in abundance. When Candide and Cunegonde sing “Oh, Happy We” and tell each other their plans and goals, we see that they’re so blinded by puppy love that they can’t even notice that they’re not remotely on the same page. The fun of the number is that they don’t really listen to each other. Cunegonde wants “faithful servants” while Candide desires “faithful dogs.”
Of course, you need glorious voices to do justice to Leonard Bernstein’s music – especially from the actress you cast as Cunegonde. Those who know the show are already nodding as they think of that coloratura showpiece “Glitter and Be Gay,” an almost six-minute workout.
Ellie Bensinger was most impressive here because she played the character and just didn’t concentrate on the music. When matters get a bit operatic in musical theater – and “Glitter and Be Gay” certainly qualifies – some directors cast a Cunegonde who is more intent on hitting notes than lyrics. Such a diva has a goal of having audiences say “Wow! What a voice! What range! Look how many octaves she can reach!”
You need a Cunegonde who can do justice to the music, yes, but also to the meaning of the words. Granted, finding a soprano who can do both isn’t an easy task for any director, but Bensinger made good on the last two syllables of her name while letting audiences hear exactly what “Glitter and Be Gay” is all about: a young woman can forget that she’s in love with a certain young man if the presents she receives from a new admirer are expensive enough.
CANDIDE must have fine instrumentalists to play Bernstein’s difficult music, too. Here, only pianist Ming Aldrich-Gan was on hand, but he was more than enough to master the demanding but rewarding overture. What a hand he received after ripping through the five-minute piece.
Theater 2020 was lucky to have him. How many times have we been at a musical where there’s only a pianist playing an overture, and (s)he’s so atrocious that the audience thinks, “Oh, Lord, when a show starts off like this, it’s going to be a long, l-o-n-g night.” And that would be especially true of CANDIDE, for its overture is not only beloved but also famous. Many in the audience would immediately know if the pianist played even an occasional clam.
(Seriously: if your show has any overture, no matter how many musicians you have, they must be accomplished. Otherwise, you’ll immediately lose the confidence of your audience. You’d be better off firing a musician who plays badly than keeping one who plays wrong notes time and time again.)
The actor who plays Voltaire also doubles as Pangloss, the professor who insists to his students that they all live in “the best of all possible worlds.” Well, yes, when one considers that there’s no discernable life on any of the other planets. But that doesn’t mean that “life is happiness indeed,” as the felicitous opening number (with then-new Stephen Sondheim lyrics) states. The illegitimate Candide, his too-far-above-him girlfriend Cunegonde, her vainglorious brother Maximillian, their servant Paquette, an Old Lady they meet and Pangloss himself will suffer mightily before the two hour, thirty minute show comes to a close. CANDIDE is meant to be the rebuttal to those who blithely insist that “Everything happens for the best.”
Here at 2020, eight other actors – four men and four women — were employed, proving that a director needs only a total of 13 lucky actors to stage the work.
When time came for Candide to go to war, we found that this particular army took women. A battle was impressionistically staged in front of the altar as a tug-of-war with a strong rope. To make a more fair fight between the Jews and the Inquisitors, Fuller put an equal number of performers on each side. Everyone worked so hard that Fuller is lucky that they didn’t collapse in the apse.
As for Pangloss’ students, they sat on a single vertical bench, with the first student facing right, the second left, the third right, and so on. It’s a small detail, but Fuller knew that it would make for a better stage picture. Or shall we say aisle picture? But think of it: if all the students were facing one way, then Pangloss would stand in one spot to face them; this way, he could walk around. Additional movement is almost always welcome in any musical. Equally effective was Pangloss’ overt favoritism of Paquette. Fuller instructed Horton to give teacher’s pet more than a bit of petting. Hallie Brevetti’s Paquette enjoyed the attention.
You’ll need someone devastatingly attractive to play Maximillian. True, there was a high-profile production a few years ago where the director decided to cast against type and chose an actor whose face, shall-we-say, would not launch a thousand ships. Many theatergoers were confused with the disparity between what they heard and what they saw. Get someone as handsome as Fuller did here with TJ Mundy-Punchard.
While you’re at it, hire a handsome but vulnerable-looking Candide. He must always be haunted by the fact that in those days being illegitimate was a lifelong curse. Ryan Farnsworth constantly acknowledged that the stain of that shame could never be erased. But he was brave about it, too, so the audience felt for him. (Getting an athletic Candide doesn’t hurt, either; Farnsworth did some solid and seemingly effortless push-ups on the altar rail.)
What’s wonderful about performing in a church is that the actors can get thisclose to the audience. One first-row spectator gave out with a hilariously frightened shriek after the scene in which Candide was woozy from surviving a volcano eruption. The actor ran over to where she was sitting, threw his head over the pew railing and started making sounds as if he were vomiting.
Luckily, it was just another convincing performance by one of David Fuller’s terrific actors.
You may e-mail Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at www.amazon.com.