By Audrey Moessing, copy editor
Legally Blonde was supposed to open March 27 to the excitement–and jitters–of the Maria Carrillo High School drama department, but is fated never to show. Beyond the upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic, the original production and process of this musical had been unlike any in the past due to teacher illness and absence. Despite this, it was slated to be a uniquely student driven success.
Planning for the musical had been happening since December when drama teacher Denise Elia-Yen held auditions, but after a trip to the hospital mid-February, her attention was divided. MCHS senior Joe Eastman, whose roles included stage manager, assistant director and stepping up into the director’s role recalled, “About a month ago Elia-Yen said, ‘I’ll get through it.’ A week later she was in the hospital.” She had told her students about some of her underlying health concerns, but no one expected them to require hospital visits, time off, a surgery and departure from MCHS in an ambulance. Before her departure, she was able to do the casting and blocking for the play as well as go over the script, but since the last week of February, Eastman had been in charge of “everything but choreo.” Freshman Georgia Laganiere, senior Nicki Watt and sophomore Savannah Wilson, the dance captains for the musical, planned the choreography in Elia-Yen’s absence.
Though the absent director threw some curves at the cast and crew of Legally Blonde, with the unique situation came a unique opportunity for “creative freedom,” as choreography head Watt described. Working together as students, the performers were “more collaborative than having one director,” and this year “more ideas [came] from the group” than in past performances. Though excited to be making the decisions, Watt admits it was a little nerve-wracking to have that much authority: “If a dancer trips and dies….we can’t blame anyone.”
“Taking our own approach–its weird,” said Eastman, and both he and Watt mentioned some cast members expressed a wish for “a real director,” but “not to the extent worth complaining about,” Watt recognized.
“It’s a high-scale musical,” said Eastman, “so much for students without [Elia-Yen’s leadership].” Elia-Yen’s husband, David Elia-Yen, an actor and director in his own right, had come in to support the students by helping direct them, but still allowed them to make many of the artistic decisions. MCHS auto shop teacher Drew Zapadinsky also stepped in to help with stagecraft architecture.
Other challenges included having a lot of overlap between cast and crew. “Everyone is taking on more roles than they normally would,” said Watt; there’s “twice the reponsibility–for seniors especially.” But speaking for senior cast and crew members, she said, “We’ve been doing this a long time and we love doing it.” There is also an element of pride in that same responsibility; Watt said, “I’m very very excited because it’s like ‘this is what we did despite what we had to go through.’ It’ll be a cool show.”
And it would have been, but after Santa Rosa City Schools confirmed that MCHS would be closed for the rest of the year on April 1, the actors will not get their performance. On hearing this, Watt said, “Honestly things are pretty rough right now…A lot of the seniors poured everything we had into making the show happen despite [Elia-Yen’s] absence.”
In recent communication with the Prensa, Elia-Yen said she was “eternally grateful to everyone for their immense support.” She had been dedicated throughout her absence, offering notes from the hospital bed, but confident in the cast’s ability of “blending naturally with their comic timing and their choral harmonies,” citing that their “solos and duets sounded excellent” even from her invalid room. Elia-Yen was “heartbroken” like her students when the news of the show’s closure broke, “especially after such a tremendous effort to keep things moving forward.” She hopes to commemorate the effort of both cast and crew in some “special reunion performance” so they may have “the opportunity to perform their show as they so deserve.”
Both Elia-Yen and Watt acknowledged a feeling of pride in the cast’s and crew’s ability to adapt to each setback that was thrown at them. Despite the cancelled show, Watt summed up their shared attitude: “No matter what happens, I’m proud of the work that our entire cast and crew has done.”