By Brian Hitsky
The diminutive, dynamo entertainer, Cindy Benson, had a hip replacement eight months ago and is soon scheduled for another. It doesn’t matter. She has no regrets, however, because she suffered the injuries doing the work that she loved.
Cindy has lived her dream playing leading roles in some of Broadways most popular, but physically-challenged musical productions. Since “retiring” from the New York theater spotlight, she has made her home in Cuenca, entertaining for charity events and giving back to the community with a unique musical and comedy style.
In the past two years she has been voted best entertainer by Gringo Post readers. A tribute following scores of accolades by some of the country’s leading theater critics for her roles in the musicals “Cats”, “Les Miserables”, “Billy Elliot” and numerous off-Broadway shows.
“A comic gem…a show stopper” characterized a New York Daily News writer describing one of her performances. “Energetic ebullience and distinctive star quality, Benson’s a ball of fire, and an extraordinary musical comedian to boot. Her physical comedy recalls Lucille Ball at her best … she echoes Imogene Coca. But there is an originality to Benson that makes her very much her own creation,” wrote a New York Post critic.
Acting, singing and dancing before sold-out audiences did not come easy for the Boston, Massachusetts area native. She struggled against her parent’s disapproval and for the approval of casting directors before attaining her first break.
It was always a dream for Cindy to play on stage. She earned a theater degree from St. Leo’s College outside of Tampa, Florida and then returned home to save money to live in New York City.
She procured a factory job cutting steel into fine strips for turbine airplane engines. She was the first women ever in that division. In true Erin Brockovich fashion, she filed an Occupational Safety and Health complaint against the company because of all the steel particles filling the air and was promptly laid off.
However, she collected $60 per week unemployment and combined with her savings, decided it was time to seek her dream in New York. Her parents were against the idea. Her dad said,” You’re going to sleep on water beds and smoke pot.” Her mother was more practical. “Let her go. She’ll run out of money and come back home.”
Cindy went and never looked back. “Not for a second,” she said. However, her time in the limelight had to wait for 10 years. She toiled with cleaning jobs and thrived as a signing waitress, all while auditioning for every opportunity that opened.
“Most people only hang in New York one to three years,” she said. “I hung in, hung in, hung in.” Among the 300-400 women who were part of a “cattle call” to play one of six roles in “Cats”, Cindy was selected to be a 200-pound tap dancing orange tabby gumbie cat. The gig lasted for five year.
“Because I did five years of the show, I’m paying for it now,” she said. “It was such a physically, unbelievably hard show. The stage was slanted so the audience could see the beautifully painted scenery. I danced on that slanted stage in high heels.”
During one performance Cindy broke her foot tap dancing in the middle of a number. “I finished it in excruciating pain and hobbled off the stage on one foot. I was out of acting for two months, but my understudy sang chorus in the pit and we just switched roles while I recovered.”
After “Cats” closed, Cindy’s next role was in “Les Miserables” as the comedic lead Mme. Themardier. It was another five years devoted to that play. “I was fortunate because the same director for “Cats” directed “Les Miserables”. I was a shoo-in. He gave me a role. It was a gift.”
“Billy Elliot” came next. It’s an Elton John musical about a boy who wants to become a dancer, set in a coal mining town in northern England. Because of the play’s location, Cindy had to learn to sing in three dialects-Wales, Scottish and English. She toured with the company that played a year in Chicago and a year in Toronto.
It was while on the road she began thinking about retirement, and was smitten by Ecuador from internet articles. She came to the country for a month and fell in love with Cuenca.
In 2013 she moved here without knowing anyone. “I trusted that I would land on my feet,” she said. “My whole life has been about trust. I’ve had so many blessings in my life. I don’t know why I’ve had them and other people don’t, but I’m grateful.”
After settling into her new city, Cindy began performing at public venues and people noticed her remarkable talent. “I began singing for a bunch of causes and events and things just snowballed,” she said.
One performance that Cindy said really gave her a high was when she danced on a float for almost four hours during the Jan. 6 “The Day of the Innocents” parade. It was the first-time gringos marched in a Cuencano parade. Combined with the Kazoo Band, the folks at Fish Bone Del Sur choreographed numbers to entertain the spectators. Benson said the parade reaction “goes on top of my list as one of the most memorable moments of my life”
“We were loved,” she said. “I didn’t have a break. I spent two days in bed afterwards, but it was incredible.”
She has put on concerts and performances to raise awareness for earthquake victims, violence against women and animal rights activities. She entertained March 22 for a fundraiser for Casa Maria Amor/Mujeres con Exito.
She also appeared with other actors and singers at the Teatro Sucre Theater for a benefit to help fight femicide.
Cindy donates her performances for these events. “I do it for the love of the people. I’ve had so much given to me in my life and this is the point in my life I’m able give back to the community. I love living here and have no intentions of moving.”
The sentiment is reciprocal. And not to add to her physical woes, the Cuenca community wishes that Cindy continues to “break a leg.”
To see part of Cindy’s performance in her role as Gumbie Cat at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater, copy and paste to the URL bar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkyixGQKaXc