CenterStage's Artistic Director John Leffert with the cast at rehearsal of the upcoming musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
In the midst of the identity crisis Louisville's weather has been having where it thinks negative wind chill factor is the norm, what better way to warm up than with some deep-belly laughter?
In a strike of being psychic, (or just knowing Louisville's January weather), CenterStage has selected to premiere The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas  as its upcoming musical. Make sure to check it out at the JCC Linker Auditorium between the dates of January 9th and January 19th. Tickets are on sale as you read this. Saturday, January 11th is already sold out. Give 502-238-2709 a ring or journey to the interwebs and visit www.CenterStageJCC.org  to experience a comedic taste of our country's history. In real life, there was a fight over a Texas brothel fondly called the Chicken Ranch. This delightfully naughty musical translates the sheriff's efforts to keep "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" thriving in spite of a tv commentator's fiery objections.
A little dose of the ever-fabulous spirit of Dolly Parton goes a long way. She stars in the movie production of this original Broadway musical that was nominated for count them, seven Tony Awards, and won two.
CenterStage's Artistic Director John Leffert kindly agreed to meet with me at the start of the new year for a charming interview. I also was allowed to see a glimpse of rehearsal. Even then, the actors were surprisingly full of energy for January 2, 2014. I admit, I had difficulty remaining professionally composed, as I was trying to hold in some laughter even then.
Lou.com: You described Avenue Q as funny, but with a lot of heart. How would you describe The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas?
John Leffert: Well, you know, I think it's similar to Avenue Q. It's funny you say that. I think a lot of shows we do here- they have to have heart. This is definitely a period piece. It's so much fun. I love that we're putting it right against Les Mis, because it's all comedy. It is a broad, big Broadway musical. Huge Texas accents, funny dialects, and just lots of broad, broad humor. But at the base of it is still this character Mona, how she treats these girls, and so much the biggest heart in the world she has. And I think that it will touch people at the end. You laugh, laugh, laugh, and then the last twenty minutes, you're going to start to feel something for these girls that work for her and [for] her. So, it's a very interesting show.
Lou.com: I think some of the best productions have that perfect mixture of heart and emotion, but humor at the same time.
JL: Absolutely. This show definitely has that. You know, it has everything from Melvin P. Thorpe, and then at the end you have just this heart-wrenching- you know, Mona sings this when she's leaving the chicken ranch, "The Bus from Amarillo," which in the movie, they put in "I Will Always Love You"  then. Dolly put in her own song then. It still has that same feeling though, that kind of gut-wrenching heart there. The woman playing Mona in our show was in the international tour of the show. She didn't play Mona, but she was a part of it when Dolly Parton's sister played Mona. We're very fortunate to have her be a part of the show, and to have her here to tell her stories about being on the road and actually getting to go to the chicken ranch, and how the people of that town looked upon the show.
Lou.com: Any kind of form of art, whether it's books, or even music, with a cd, when you have a season, you have a specific order. And you mentioned that you liked that this came after Les Mis.
JL: To me, you can't try and top Les Mis with anything like that, so it was perfect to come back with this, again, incredibly broad musical theater comedy. It's just, it's perfect, I think, the order we put it. And then, we go into Wit, which is kind of gut-wrenching. And then we go into a musical I love, The Color Purple, and then, finally, The Sound of Music. So, we do pay attention to the placement of the pieces, and what they speak to, and what our audiences want. I hear all the time our audiences don't like to see sad. So we've got to give them a good mix of stuff.
Lou. com: But you make a conscious decision of trying to have- if you have a super moving production, you want to follow it with a comedic one.
JL: We do. I think it's important to give your audience some highs and lows. Otherwise, they'll get bored and not want to come back. But we're going to give them something different. It's really important, I think.
Lou.com: So even not considering the order, when you pick the number of productions you have for every season, that goes into it too. You want to have a mixture.
JL: We do want a mixture. We want a mixture of contemporary and classic. I think diversity is important, not only in our casting, but to have a show like The Color Purple next to The Sound of Music. Those are incredibly diverse, both in their audience and in their looks, so it's great. A lot of theaters don't spend the time. They do the shows they want to do, but to me, even if I wanted to do a certain show, if it didn't fit with all six, we would wait maybe another year. We pay a lot of attention to that. And especially with our classic, season ticket base. We're considering doing Spring Awakening. But we have to pull a classic like Cinderella with that. You put those two shows in a season, it just creates a huge amount of diversity; not only in your audience, but in your casting, and everything about your season, which is what CenterStage I think is about.
Lou.com: You mentioned Les Mis. That would arguably be the most ambitious musical theater endeavor for CenterStage.
JL: Yes. It truly was. It took everything that every person had in the theater. Especially for the size of community theater we are, the size of our base and stage and everything. This show is going to be a unit set, Texas flags painted everywhere. It's going to be bright and colorful. I mean, you just saw a robe with white fringe and stars, so I think it's important with all aspects of the production to be diverse. This takes place in the seventies. It's going to be a true seventies- with leisure suits and all kinds of things like that, so it's going to be a lot of fun.
Lou.com: Just more of a general question- of the 2013/now 2014 season thus far, what would you consider the most rewarding moment?
JL: We have a few to go, so I have a couple things I am looking forward to. A New Brain, because of that composer, and I love that CenterStage is able to produce non-popular works and have an audience experience them, where they may never see that piece again, or may never have the opportunity to see it. Of course, Les Mis is probably one of the reasons I do musical theater. I've grown up with that piece. I've seen it probably over fifteen times on stage. That's just kind of a life dream to work on that piece in the capacity I did. I have a very personal piece coming up with Wit. Both of my parents have passed away with cancer within the past five years. I've come to a point where I think that's going to be a cathartic piece for me, and I'm looking forward to delving into that subject matter that unfortunately I know too much about. We're collaborating with Gilda's Club, and doing a lot of things with that piece to hopefully help and be a part of the community. And then finally, wrapping up our season, The Sound of Music. I always tell people that The Sound of Music is the reason that I do musical theater. It always has a special place in my heart. It's hard to tell your favorites, but each one touches me in a personal way. I'm very excited to do The Color Purple, because I love that CenterStage is able to produce a completely diverse piece. I'm not directing that piece, but I'm just so proud that we have an all African-American cast and African American director, and I'm just really proud that we're able to do that piece here.
Lou.com: Who surprised you?
JL: I don't know if I should name. You may cast differently than what you originally- because you can't not choose a show and not have specific people- but you have to be open-minded enough that if a new person comes in that you've never seen before... Lauren LeBlanc is brand new to our company, who played Paula in Legally Blonde. She's brilliant. I had never met her before she walked into auditions. Glenna Godsey I've worked with, who's playing Mona in this piece. I think in her persona and who she is and her commanding presence on stage and her physicality works perfect for the role. And at that time, I didn't even know she had done the tour. And then she told me she'd done the tour and I was like, ahh, that's why you know the show so well. She's playing opposite Rusty Henle, who was in my second show since I've been here fourteen years. And then, Tamika Skaggs is an incredible vocalist. It's just magic on stage. They're really great.
Lou.com: Do you think the story has modern-day resonance?
JL: Well, relevance in how they poke fun at politics. You've got this governor's number that does the side step. Well, we all know politicians are doing the side step even today. No matter your political beliefs, that's part of being a politician. So there's still a lot of relevance, even though they're dealing with prostitutes of that period. It could be translated to any number of subject matters today. Very tongue-in-cheek, but yes.
Lou.com: How do you come up with the costumes?
JL: Well, Donna Lawrence, she's our costume designer for this show, and I've been helping her a lot. That's actually my graduate degree. It's in costume and design. So I give my opinion a lot on that. But Donna has designed costumes for StageOne, Music Theatre Louisville. She's got a huge reputation in the city. It's a great collaborative process.
Lou.com: How did you first get started at CenterStage?
JL: I started here fourteen years ago. I was teaching at Indiana University Southeast at that time, and working professionally at Derby Dinner Playhouse as an actor. It feels great. CenterStage  turns 100 years next year. I'm very part of it. Of course, I don't do it alone. I have a huge team that helps me. I'm very grateful to them and to everyone who's been a part of it. The cast- they all volunteer. It's just amazing to me how lucky we are to have this talented of a group of people. That also goes into the seasons we choose.
Lou.com: What do you hope the audience will take away from this?
JL: Just fun. Laughs. Good humor. By the time they leave, they should feel like they've been to a Texas hoedown, and that's what I want everyone to feel like. You're just seeing a fun, great piece of musical theater. And that's what I hope you leave with. A lot of laughs.
Top Photo: Courtesy of Julie Lamb