One might well ask, why was a non-believer like me leaping onto four different subway trains to get to St. Charles Borromeo's Church in Brooklyn Heights at the peak of the polar vortex? I was determined to attend Theater2020's latest main stage event - the restaging of Harold Prince's 1974 version of Leonard Bernstein's melody and laughter filled satirical opera, Candide; i.e., the shorter version that was a hit. Performing sucha sorta anti-faith opus in a classic neo-Gothic, flying buttressed, absolution-awarding ecclesiastical venue might strike some as chutzpah, but Theater2020's stellar productions will restore anyone's faith in art.
Getting to the church on time was a hurdle with me the responsible culprit. I insisted on adhering to Friday morning's www.hopstop.com's travel directions on Sunday afternoon when everybody knows that the MTA weekend repair schedule turns the best-laid travel plans topsy-turvy. It was not in service when I needed it to be. Fortunately two cultured gentlemen seated near me on the 5 train were attending the same play, and convinced me to follow their lead to the 4 Train's Borough Hall stop, where I unfortunately lost them ... or vice versa, which led me on an unintended scenic walking tour of the neighborhood where I passed every Brooklyn church but the one I wanted. By the time I stumbled into St. Chuck's, my spirit guides had been seated for 20 minutes and were wondering what had happened to me.
I'm a longtime aficionada of Theater 2020's Co-Artistic Directors, Judith Jarosz and David Fuller, the multi-award-winning producing, directing, performing and choreographing wunder-duo, who for many years helmed Manhattan's late, lamented, Theater 1010 until the church elders of the Park Avenue church in which the company performed opted to turn their performance space into a Pre-K.
Jarosz and Fuller began canvassing Brooklyn for a replacement venue, desiring to bring high culture to a borough now renowned for haut cuisine. On 2010 Theater 2020 started producing Shakespeare at St. Charles Borromeo Church -- A Comedy of Errors, followed by Romeo and Juliet and then last year's Award-Winning Midsummer's Night Dream. Even the most conservative parishioner could hardly find fault with such classic selections.
Now that the dust has settled, Theater 2020 has gotten a bit bolder. This year's opener is a classic but contemporary interpretation of Voltaire's Candide as perceived by Leonard Bernstein et al. Bernstein's score turns Candide into a magnificent comic opera, and Wheeler's script juxtaposes optimism, pragmatism, episodic and picaresque guerilla-cum-street theater into what feels like a morality play preserved in medieval surroundings.
The interior of St. Charles Borromeo is beautiful and serene. Its spotless marble chancel, crowned by dazzling, huge, bright, colorful, stained glass windows depicting scenes in the life of Jesus, also doubles as the stage, with a translucent gauze curtain separating the alter. The acoustics are grand. The score is glorious. The cast is the crème de la crème of the 1000 young performers who auditioned for these roles. Sets are minimal, just a moveable wooden bench, table, chairs and stools. Costumes are appropriately creative and colorfully youthful, the better to enhance the distinction of the unbelievably talented cast.
Bernstein's up-tempo, tune-packed, syncopated score keeps your toes tapping. Candide's overture is now my absolutely favorite piece of music. It was doubly extraordinary, especially as performed with great brio by Musical Director Ming Aldrich-Gan who played like he has 42 fingers on each hand and was instantly rewarded with a bursting-with-bravos standing ovation.
Among the moments of heavenly bliss were the pure angelic tones of Ryan Farnsworth's Candide soaring through the sanctuary from the rear organ loft.
A native Californian with well-deserved honors in musical theater from UC, Irvine, Farnsworth strolls down the aisle singing which leads into the ensuing wicked quartet, Life is Happiness Indeed. What innocence! What purity! What devilish eyes! What adorable green knickers!
Ellie Bensinger, a very pretty, young, lilting coloratura soprano, plays Cunegonde, Candide's (and practically everyone else's) love interest. She sings Glitter and Be Gay with an extraordinary command of the higher registers for someone making her NYC debut. All of the performers are exceptional. Thanks to the exquisite simplicity of the production, the singing is never overshadowed. Theater 2020 has once again proven that you can easily delight an audience when you have 1,000 times more imagination than funding, as they always have.
Sitting near the alter in a church for two hours supplied a spiritual uplift to my cynical nature. I wish to confess that I plan to see Candide at least one more time before it closes. It's worth another trip to Brooklyn, especially now that I know how to go. There are many production companies all over the US with similar skills who provide excellent theater for minimal costs. You just have to be free enough to find them.
Tickets are only $18 and Candide plays Friday and Saturday nights at 8 pm and Sunday afternoon at 3 until March 9th.