Once every four years, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Music and the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film put aside their opposite schedules and differing rehearsal methods to collaborate on one huge production.
This year, the stars have aligned and “Candide” is set to open on Thursday at Kimball Recital Hall. “Candide” is the story of the slow disillusionment of the character for which the play was named. It begins with Candide living in a paradise-like world where he mindlessly accepts the concept of optimism from his mentor, Pangloss. Over time, though, he experiences various hardships and slowly begins to reject optimism.
The show itself, adapted from Voltaire’s original novella, has been through as many as nine major revisions since it was first produced for Broadway in 1956.
“‘Candide’ has been revised so many times because people really believe in the source material,” director and music professor Alisa Belflower said. “They believe Voltaire’s written work is very rich with important valuable life lessons – a study of the human spirit, if you will. They also believe that Bernstein’s music is just something that’s magnificent and should be celebrated.”
To find a way to bring that together on a stage with theatrical and musical integrity is a rather large challenge, Belflower said.
So, many creators have come up with their own versions of “Candide” throughout the years.
It was Mary Zimmerman’s recent adaptation that caught Belflower’s attention.
“To me, hers is the most amazing of all of them,” Belflower said. “I fell in love with her vision for the production and the script she wrote for it.”
Belflower contacted Zimmerman, and now UNL will see the regional premiere of her adaptation, as well as the first time it’s ever been heard with a full orchestra.
“This show hasn’t been fully staged in New York in over twelve years,” Belflower said. “It’s a very rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a production like this that is so celebrated and loved.”
Every time music graduate student Adam Fieldson enters the stage as Candide, he discovers new things about his character.
“Candide has a fantastical journey, you could say,” Fieldson said. “He changes a lot throughout the show; his view of the world goes from an ignorant, optimistic view to a more realistic and practical view. Candide really characterizes innocence in youth.”
Coming into his character, Fieldson said there is a lot to work with and a lot to draw from.
“Onstage, I experience all the significant events in his life,” he said. “And I try to figure out who Candide is and who I want Candide to be.”
Kendall Reimer, a senior music major, plays Candide’s love interest, Cunégonde.
“Starting off from the beginning, Cunégonde is young; she’s a free spirit, she’s smart and she’s well-to-do,” Reimer said. “Throughout the show, it’s amazing to get to play the change of her character. I come on and off the stage as a different person because of the trials that she goes through and because of the more she learns about life, that it’s not necessarily the best world.”
Fieldson and Remier said they have both enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with the theater department.
“Getting to work with theater students is an amazing experience,” Reimer said. “I’ve learned so much from them, just listening to them deliver their lines. At least for me, that’s something I’m not experienced with and knowledgeable about.”
“It’s nice to see what the theater department brings to the table and what we (the school of music) bring to the table,” Fieldson said. “To learn from each other is very inspiring.”
The two music students both agree that the dialogue in the production has been the most challenging aspect.
“Knowing not just the truth of what you’re saying, but how the truth of what you’re saying affects your character is difficult,” Fieldson said. “That’s the way that you can really communicate on stage.”
Reimer said dialogue coaching from theater professor Stan Brown has been extremely helpful throughout rehearsals.
“I would say, in big bold, the biggest thing I’ve learned from Stan Brown is to listen,” she said. “It’s something you really take for granted, and you don’t really think about too much until you’re reminded to do so. You can learn so much about not only your character, if you listen, but your surrounding characters, too – and yourself, personally.”
Directing both music and theater students is a rewarding experience, Belflower said, but it doesn’t come without its challenges.
“When we began rehearsals for ‘Candide,’ there was some frustration from both sides,” Belflower said. “It’s hard to adapt to one another’s rehearsal methods when you’re so used to your own but by the end of it, everybody’s on board.”
Belflower said after the initial obstacles, collaboration becomes a great thing.
“The music students are inspired by the theater students, and the theater students are inspired by the music students,” she said. “Their learning is accelerated.”
Belflower said she concentrates her directing on getting the actors to be as specific as they can possibly be, from their choices of movement to their voices, as well as in their intentions as to what they want to accomplish on stage while in character.
Theater professor Stan Brown helped with dialects for each of the characters throughout the show.
“The dialects were important so each of the students could create characters that are specifically identifiable and feel and sound different than their other characters, even when they’re played by the same person,” Belflower said.
When she wasn’t concentrating on how to get different factions of the ensemble to work together, Belflower was working on how best to portray the script on stage. She went back to basics with Voltaire’s original novella.
“It’s very interesting to note the parts in the written work that aren’t in the script, because it helps to maintain the development of the characters,” Belflower said. “Even though the audience doesn’t necessarily see it, it helps develop the story through time.”
SETS & LIGHTS
The set of “Candide” is going to be pretty.
That’s because everything – costumes, set and lighting – is all part of a unified idea, said theater graduate student Clay Van Winkle.
“It has a lot to do with color,” Van Winkle said. “The idea is that we change locations with color, as well as set the mood. Anything to give a feeling of place.”
Since “Candide” takes place in so many locations, the scenic designers needed to create a set that could facilitate quick scene changes and had a lot of fluidity to it – all without being too distracting for the audience.
“Kimball is a recital hall, so it’s an interesting space to design for; it’s not like a typical theater,” theater graduate student Michaela Stein said. “Since we can’t fly anything out – there are no curtains – making the audience feel that there is a drastic change in location was a little difficult.”
Stein envisioned a set with handmade curtains instead of walls, as well as a series of platforms and an angled stage.
“I thought building all the curtains for the space was going to be a problem, but because of the wonderful theater program at UNL, we were able to fulfill that need of the design and quickly overcame that challenge,” Stein said.
Stein said the curtains help create a beautiful space that’s not necessarily literal for each scene and add a lot of interesting line and movement.
Van Winkle said he has enjoyed the freedom with lighting that “Candide” offers.
“I can take things really far,” he said. “I can use really saturated colors; I can deal with a lot of movement and really cool effects as well as creating a naturalistic feel.”
Van Winkle said he believes the lighting will really help set the scope of the show for the audience.
“We’re going for kind of a theatrical feel, and all of the design elements work together to accomplish that,” he said. “The lighting is just one piece of the puzzle of the whole concept.”
“Candide” doesn’t have hydraulic lifts or rotating stages. It does have costumes though – more than 300 of them.
The operetta is, above all, a journey. It transports audiences to destinations such as Germany, Holland, Portugal, Spain, Paraguay, Colombia, Venice and Turkey.
But the limited space and resources in Kimball Recital Hall don’t allow for a new set each time the plot introduces a new location. To transition among a variety of places, costume designer Mallory Maria Prucha created hundreds of costume looks, each themed toward a specific set. Director Alisa Belflower said the costumes are essential to creating “Candide.”
“She has managed to absolutely amazingly create costumes that are able to transfer the audience and my actors to those places,” Belflower said.
Prucha’s costume work for “Candide” is also her graduate thesis and her dedication to her craft is evident.
Becca Duncan, a sophomore music major and part of the “Candide” ensemble, said the costumes exceeded her expectations from previous productions.
“These are a lot more elaborate than anything I’ve experienced in the past,” Duncan said. “Mallory came in with these concept drawings. In the Eldorado scene it’s all gold – everything is gold. In places like France and Germany, everyone has these towering wigs. One of the wigs literally has a boat in it.”
According to Duncan, the intricate costumes do present some challenges, however. The corsets worn by women in the 1700s were not made for breathing, much less singing. “We brought those (corsets) into rehearsals pretty early,” Duncan said. “Eventually they’d keep cinching us in tighter.”
Pantyhose, petticoats, full-length skirts and heels may be difficult to maneuver, but they set the stage for “Candide” to shine. Duncan said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s a lot to get used to, but it’s definitely worth it,” she said.
A great outfit is useless without proper makeup. This is why the costume designer for “Candide,” Mallory Maria Prucha, is also the primary makeup artist.
“Mallory is both the makeup and the costume designer, which gives us a holistic and well-integrated approach,” director Alisa Belflower said. “If I had the choice, I would always choose someone to do both.”
The makeup for “Candide” is highly specific to each character. According the Becca Duncan, a sophomore music major and member of the “Candide” ensemble, Prucha created individual sheets for each member of the cast, instructing he or she which features to highlight or minimize. Though there are makeup artists on hand, most cast members, both male and female, have enough theater experience to do their own makeup. That doesn’t make it easy, though. Preparation usually talks at least an hour and a half, Duncan said.
“It’s probably more like two and a half hours total, but I pre-curl my hair,” she said. “There’s a lot of really specific shading.”
As well as preventing actors from looking like ghosts under the theater lights, stage makeup in “Candide” amplifies characters’ emotions and statuses.
“At times the student (actors) need to look stressed, wealthy, poor, young or old,” Belflower said, “and the makeup goes a long way helping the students to portray those intricacies to the audience.”
on twitter @dnartsdesk