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Cal State LA Honors Legendary Composer Leonard Bernstein’s Centennial Birthday with Musical Tribute

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A still from the dress rehearsal of Candide

A still from the dress rehearsal of Candide

Louis Ayala

Louis Ayala

A still from the dress rehearsal of Candide

Anthony Karambelas, Staff Reporter

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Optimism only goes so far before it veers into carefree gullibility. Leonard Bernstein’s renowned “Candide”–based on the satire by French writer Voltaire–explores this very fine line. Over the course of this two-hour musical, audience members experience the world through the lens of an extremely naïve German boy. Having been taught his entire life that everything in the universe happens for the best (including earthquakes), his tranquil view of Earth and its inhabitants is quickly shaken by reality.

After enduring the loss of his entire family and lover, suffering numerous beatings, whippings, and swindles, this young man must finally confront the truth about life; it can suck. This past weekend and upcoming one, Cal State LA has and will present this young man’s story in of all its grandeur.

I was first cast as Candide a month-and-a-half ago, the journey to a fully fledged performance at the State Playhouse has required a monumental amount of energy and hard work. Arguably, the most difficult aspect of “Candide” to master is its music.

In fact, amidst being “too large, too complex, too scary, and too costly” a production, one of the strong objections our director, Dr. James Hatfield, received upon proposing the idea for “Candide” was that “[the songs] just can’t be sung well by student voices.” They quite literally stretch vocalists to their maximum capacities, requiring an enormous amount of vocal range and dexterity. But, Dr. Hatfield didn’t let that stop him, asking all doubters to “tell me I’m crazy.” Having put on “Candide” three times before, with student casts, he never once doubted that it could be done again.

Candide, as a character, is designed for tenors. As a self-proclaimed baritone, I found myself needing to adjust to the higher range of the musical’s youthful protagonist. My case, however, in no way compares to those of two fellow cast members, Amelia Gonzalez and Erika Steele, who play Candide’s love interest, Cunegonde.

Hitting famously high notes–such as in her solo, “Glitter and Be Gay”–Cunegonde is quite strictly designed for sopranos. Being performed in the past by greats such as Barbara Cook and Kristin Chenoweth, Gonzalez and Steele certainly had a lot to live up to. But, they did just that.

Gonzalez said, “I wasn’t aware of it before, but I naturally sing that high, just for fun. I was so nervous about singing so high for Glitter and Be Gay, and from watching different performances, I began to question myself. But when I sang it the first time, I just told myself to go for it, just hit the note straight on. And did I hit it. I look back at how scared I was, and I just realize the progression I made in just over the span of a month. It’s exciting, and I’m truly proud of myself.”

Seeing that the role of Cunegonde is so vocally taxing, Gonzalez and Steele perform on alternating days to allow for longer periods of vocal rest. While some might think sharing such a large role–or any role, for that matter–would breed dissension, our two Cunegonde’s couldn’t be a better pair. If anything, they are grateful for it.

In standard productions, the inner workings–including props, costumes, and backstage–are hidden from the audience’s view. Dr. Hatfield designed our version of “Candide” to take a constructivist approach, revealing the backstage magic that goes into making the performance so good. Robert Glen Decker, who plays my master Dr. Pangloss, describes it best.

“In traditional theatre, we go to great lengths to disguise the inner workings and behind-the-scenes technicalities of a production, but in this production of Candide, the inner workings are laid bare as the audience witnesses actors changing costumes onstage, while the movement of props and scene changes occurs around the open scaffolds of the set, with parts of backstage and the orchestra visible to the audience,” said Decker.

Upon adding costumes to the mix, we faced another serious challenge. With over 160 costumes, for less than forty cast members, our show requires a multitudinous number of quick changes. With only three costumes, I have it easy. My partner, Decker, does not.

The script mandates that the actor who plays Dr. Pangloss must also serve as Voltaire (the narrator), the Governor, and a wise sage. Seeing that the character Voltaire narrates throughout the performance, Decker must switch costumes numerous times before the audience’s eyes.

“As Voltaire narrates the stories in his novel, he morphs into various comedic characters including an optimistic schoolmaster, an evil Governor, and a greedy Arabian sheik. The role keeps me on my toes, as I am constantly changing costumes and wigs, mostly right in front of the audience, and the timing is swift. It’s a great role, and I’m enjoying pulling out all the stops both physically and vocally,” said Decker.

So as we actors sweat our ways from costume to costume, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

As Decker succinctly noted, “Candide is a splendid satire, and no religion or race is spared of ridicule. Leave your politically correct hat at the door, sit back, and laugh at how ridiculous we all are as a human race.”

It has been my honor to work with such talented fellow cast members on a production I will never forget. Come see the culmination of all our hard work, “which has proven conclusively” that ours is the best of all possible “Candide’s, “in the best of all possible countries in the best of all possible worlds.”

Upcoming performances: 3/9 at 7:30p, 3/10 at 7:30p, and 3/11 at 2:30p & 7:30p. Tickets can be purchased at www.calstatela.edu/mtd. For more information, email [email protected]

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