Three years ago this month, Palm Springs High School was preparing for the opening night of “Chicago.” Students readied for their roles as usual, going over lines and getting into character.
But the student performers only got to try on their costumes one time before rehearsals came to a screeching halt amid the pandemic. Of course, there were no 2020 performances of the spring musical, and that year’s seniors later went off to attend Zoom college classes. The musical’s cancellation was a huge blow for many.
“We fought so long to get the rights to perform ‘Chicago,’” said director Allyson Boylan. “We even had custom costumes for all the girls.”
The school’s theater department tried to revive the musical in fits and starts over the next year — even planning a special alumni performance to bring back the students who had graduated without performing — but “Chicago” never saw the light of day. And last year, Boylan couldn’t muster enough interest.
“There was this phobia of performing because no one had dance or vocal training,” she said. “We had a great turnout of people wanting to work behind the scenes, but no one actually wanted to perform.”
All that changes this Friday, when the curtain rises on “Legally Blonde” at the Richards Center for the Arts auditorium. Pre-pandemic, the theater department only performed musicals every other year, so this will be the first musical performed at the high school in five years.
Typically, a high school production might have a rigid hierarchy, with seniors and juniors dominating the lead roles after paying their dues in the ensemble as underclassmen. Freshmen and sophomores would then learn what it means to be a performer from the upperclassmen.
But this year’s production is anything but typical. After years of online school, “everyone is green,” Boylan said. That includes Aeisha Faith Canete, a senior playing the lead role of Elle Woods. Canete is not just new to stage performing, she’s new to the country.
Canete was born in Southern California and lived here for the first six years of her life before moving to the Philippines. Less than a year ago, when she turned 18, Canete’s parents sent her to Palm Springs from their home in the Bukidnon province to stay with her aunt. “It was so hard,” she said of leaving the Philippines. “I had to leave my friends I’ve known since I was little, my boyfriend and my family.”
Canete’s mother trained her to sing from a young age, and back home her family is known for their singing in churches. “My parents are very religious and music is something that connects me with my mom,” she said. “She sang in local competitions, but I think it was her dream to have a part like this.”
When Canete first transferred to the high school, she struggled to make friends. “I was always eating by myself at lunch,” she said.
But when Boylan, the theater director, first met Canete in her theater class, she showed some interest in the musical. Canete had never heard of “Legally Blonde,” but after watching a performance on YouTube she seemed interested in auditioning.
Canete took one look at the actress playing Elle, Boylan remembered, and said: “I can never be in it because I’m Filipino. I’m not blonde.”
“I looked at her and I said, ‘We can make you blonde!’ and told her to try out,” Boylan said. “In her audition, she just blew us out of the water.”
Canete assumed she would just be in the ensemble, and was shocked to find out she had gotten the lead role. “I thought, ‘Really?!’ Nobody knows me, I don’t have friends, I don’t talk,” she said. “I’m shy and I get so nervous.”
Those nerves were nowhere to be found at a recent tech rehearsal. Canete and 30 other students in ill-fitting suits, not-too-high heels and UPS uniforms rehearsed the choreography for classic songs, including the earworm of a number, “Omigod You Guys.”
And just as important as the on-stage dance choreography is the complex dance off-stage during scene changes, when another dozen students must seamlessly — and quickly — transport the audience from a sorority house to a romantic dinner. Factoring in the students who built the set and the students running the lights and sound, Boylan estimates there are about 100 people total involved in the production, including three faculty members playing some adult roles.
Boylan is proud of the cast and crew for their professionalism and respect. She thinks the students take pride in their work, and take care of the props and costumes, because they had to raise every cent themselves to purchase them.
“We don’t have direct funding from the district, so everything we do we have to fundraise ourselves,” Boylan said. “Our theater company was out at the Salton Sea picking up trash for four hours to get a $2,000 donation from Riverside County Youth Force.”
Canete didn’t need to be blonde to get the role of Elle, said Boylan, but she did need to embody some of her characteristics.
“Like Elle, she’s wholesome, and always positive,” Boylan remarked. “That translates to the stage.”
Details: ‘Legally Blonde’ is presented March 17 through 19, and again March 24 through 26 at Richards Center for the Arts starting at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 and available by going here or at the door.