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    CenterStage's Once on This Island
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    As the second to last musical in the 100th anniversary 2014-2015 season of CenterStage, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Tony-nominated show Once on This Island will be following-up a dazzling interpretation of The Wizard of Oz. Once on This Island will be a musical gumbo of layered, intricate stories, whimsical, expressive dance, and tribal art-inspired visuals, anchored in the roots of a favorite old fairytale of an innocent girl who wasn't afraid to see beyond prejudice to fight for love and truth. However, don't expect to see the Disney version on stage. Once on This Island is The Little Mermaid with a calypso soul twist and heart of a plot that beats with the pulse of pressing issues. Mr. John Leffert, Artistic Director of CenterStage's visionary explorations into cultural context, took the time to give Louisville.com readers an intimate preview into the significance of this musical, one Mr. Leffert confidently deems worthy to introduce to a larger audience- and why it is so important as part of a larger societal conversation. 

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    Louisville.com: From what I understand, Once on This Island is considered a calypso-infused modern retelling of The Little Mermaid. I imagine it will be considered a bit of an unknown. Can you tell me a little bit more about the story?

    John Leffert: Absolutely. When I say it’s a retelling, people go immediately to the Disney Little Mermaid. It’s more like the Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaid. So, that’s important to note. It is a retelling of that. There’s a book called My Love, My Love: [Or The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy] – that book was written… based on The Little Mermaid, and then this show is based directly on this book… It’s a story of love, and it’s a story of relationships.

    Lou.com: Perfect for February.

    JL: Absolutely. It was chosen for February for that reason, as well as for African-American History month. It is an all African American cast… It’s set on an island in Haiti. And it’s the story of two light-skinned people and then a darker-skinned, more native people, and how those two were pitted against each other. A lot of discrimination. A lot of assumptions… and it’s… very Romeo and Juliet-esque, where one on one side falls in love with one from the other, and what happens in regards to that is the lesson [the show] teaches.

    It’s about storytelling,… and it’s a story about life. … I’ve done a lot of research in Haitian literature. You see the analogy of this tree often times. …This tree becomes very symbolic in the story, both at the beginning and at the end… It’s kind of that trope of life after life after life.

    Lou.com: Did you study Haitian literature in preparation for this production, or had you already known about it?

    JL: I had known about it. I’d read the book a long, long time ago, and I was familiar with that original Little Mermaid tale. I did do a lot of studying. I went back to more native stuff to Haiti. I’m looking at the original art. The whole play takes place in one night. They are telling a story to this little girl. It’s the night of the worst storm they’ve ever seen on this island and they’re all huddled in a hut.

    My philosophy of this piece is everything has to come out of this world and out of this land. I studied a lot of their art, tribal art, and what crops existed at that time, and what was the agriculture at that time. Because as we tell the story, we want to make sure it’s true to the world in which these people live.

    Lou.com: Did the tribal art and what you studied influence the costuming choices and set design?

    JL: Melissa Shepherd is designing the costumes for this show. And Michael Hottois did the set. This set is a unit set, [with] palm trees…engulfing this dock-like structure that can become everything. There’s a gate that is symbolic that will fly in and out, and there’s a fire pit… The set is pretty nature-driven… What was important to me was not to set a period for the show…. I wanted to… create this world that is nondescript in a way, but still descriptive.

    You’re going to see a lot of bright colors. You’re going to see a lot of loose peasant, tribal-type skirts. And then we used a lot of color to symbolize the groups of people… The costumes are more to get a sense of just where we are on this island. When I speak of the art, …I’m speaking of that they wear more masks in this show. They represent frogs, trees. They play a lot of different inanimate things, and that’s where I’m looking to pull into that art feel.

    Lou.com: And you said that it is told initially through the perspective of someone telling a story to a girl. A story within a story.

    JL: Absolutely it’s a story within a story. There is definitely a group of villagers who are comforting these children on this horrible, horrible storm. And the way they get their mind off this storm is to tell this story. And clearly, it’s meant to be a story that will be passed down... History places a big point to this world, where they want to tell why they do what they do.

    Lou.com: So it is all about heritage, legacy, and passing on lessons.

    JL: Absolutely. …This girl is adopted by these parents, but they let her take her journey. …It’s about that journey. We all take a journey and we all have hardships and [it’s about] how we respond to those that creates who we are. We’ve all been in love and fallen out of love and been hurt. It all plays in this story.

    But what’s brilliant about it, I think, is that it’s told through this island music that is just infectious. …I’m just amazed by [Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens], because of their diverse repertoire. They wrote Lucky Stiff… they wrote Seussical, and then they wrote Rag Time, and now this. The three are just so incredibly different and I’m just blown away by that.

    Typically, when you have Broadway composers, they have a style that they stick to whether they want to or not. It’s just in who they are. You can tell a Sondheim piece, you can tell Jason Robert Brown’s music, you can tell Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb are very distinct. But… [Flaherty and Ahrens] are just able to transcend…. You can’t sit through these rehearsals and not leave with a smile on your face. Because it’s just that happy. It feels that happy. It’s really beautiful music.

    Lou.com: When the audience leaves after having seen this production, what are you hoping they take away from it?

    JL: A lot of issues in the show are discrimination. There are things that are-

    Lou.com: Issues that are still relevant to today.

    JL: Absolutely relevant to today… I asked the cast on the first day the same question: Why is it relevant? Why are we still doing this story? And they brought up a lot… about all that was going on in St. Louis and Missouri, and all across the world. How even today if someone is African American, some things no matter what we try and do or not do are assumed.

    Lou.com: So it’s about peeling back some of those stereotypes.

    JL: Right. Trying to make sure that we are transcending that and teaching people that just because people look a certain way or are a certain way, it does not mean those assumptions are true.

    Lou.com: In addition to placing this story in a relevant context with your cast, what other kind of methods do you use to prepare them to get in the best emotional mindset to convey this story?

    JL: Movement plays [a large part] in this story. We have a line in the beginning where we dance to basically to live. They’re dancing as if their lives depend on it. Frank Goodloe- everyone knows Frank [who most recently played the Tin Woodsman in CenterStage’s production of The Wizard of Oz]- he choreographed the piece. He’s done the piece several times and he has a passion for [it]. The movement… it’s infusing contemporary with… tribal [energy], and then it has an African flavor as well. It’s using movement to also depict the two different sides of the people that are telling the story.

    I think that’s what is really exciting- about how it infuses all art forms into one. Theater is storytelling… and this story is about storytelling…And it’s told through movement, it’s told through song, it’s told through everything. I think that’s what makes it interesting.

    Lou.com: When there are all of these elements. There is not one specific theme. You have love and pressing racial issues. What kind of challenges are being presented to you as a director?

    JL: It’s written such that all the people are storytellers. That’s really their role…they’re kind of given this role. … I cast a few more children than typically, because I think we want to see those stories being told to people of that age. And I’ve told the cast that their whole job is to tell this story like they’re speaking to six year-olds, eight year-olds…. There’s a certain style in that storytelling. It’s animated… I talk about word-painting a lot and using their hands to describe.

    … There are four gods that drive the piece. We’re coming back to that history. There’s Papa Ge, the God of Death. There’s Erzulie, the Goddess of Love. There is a goddess of nature, tree [and earth]… then there’s Agwe, who is the God of Water. Water plays an important part of the show with rain and flood. It has how they take this young woman’s journey and take her [through that]…It’s this love of people, love of their heritage, love of family is so true in this piece. And then, love of your partner.

    Lou.com: All the facets.

    JL: Right. And it’s interesting how nature plays a role. … we are still dealing with today how nature affects us and how we affect nature and how those things play a role...

    When she’s on a journey to the village, …the Goddess of Nature… shows the frogs and the trees and the nature, reminding us to stop and take a look around and enjoy the world we live in, and not get caught up. When she gets to the village, it’s different. The cast makes… big loud noises to create that kind of chaos when we’re in a city that we perhaps forget.

    Lou.com: A lot about transitioning.

    JL: Oh my gosh, yeah. It’s uni-set. Costumes will be one. They’ll take off different pieces. They come in and out of the story. It reminds me a lot of Joseph [and the Technicolor Dreamcoat] or Children of Eden. …The stories come from a group of people and they tell the story in different ways…When the Goddess of Love has a song in Act II, it’s just trying to guide her through movement and through lighting and those feelings. It’s hard to direct a feeling and to light a feeling. But it’s so important. And visually too, I look at that.

    …With The Wizard of Oz and coming right into this- when you think of doing a children’s theater piece, which this isn’t, but it is for children or for families- you want [it] to be interesting to these children. That was what was so important to me in The Wizard of Oz was I didn’t want to simplify it. I wanted it to be visually something for them to see at every turn. At one point in the show, there are birds [played by actors], and there’s going to be these kites that are going to fly over the audience, with people guiding them. Kind of similar to The Lion King. They play frogs with masks and breezes with things flowing. Just bright colors and costumes... It is a one act too, and …it lasts about an hour and twenty minutes with no intermission. So it’s got to move.

    Lou.com: So that changes the pace.

    JL: It does, it does. It drives. It’s energy, energy, right to the very end.

    Lou.com: How do the actors maintain the energy throughout the show?

    JL: I think the music does it for them. Flaherty and Ahrens have done a brilliant job. This music starts to play and it just infects you. If you think of any island music, you can’t help but tap your fingers or your toes or smile. …You just hear that music and it just brings you that warm feeing over you, and I think that’s really a perfect setting for that. The music helps you. And you do get caught up in the story. You do feel for this Ti Moune character. We’ve all been there. We’re sympathetic.

    I think you should be sympathetic with both sides, because they’re both a product of their experience. You get caught up with who they are. There’s humor, there’s a lot of humor. There’s some serious moments too. There is some darkness. You have a God of Death, so you know that’s going to play in there somewhere. And Ti Moune saves this boy’s life, so there’s this give and take in there of what she may give up to have done that…

    Lou.com: Life is all about give and take. It sounds like an incredibly relevant story.

    JL: It is. …We’re not going to change the world with the piece, but it does open your eyes to a lot of things. And it’s funny- when you tell it in a lighter way, and don’t beat people over the head with it, perhaps it might hit home to some people more. They won’t turn off to it immediately, like they’re being preached to… and what I love about is it’s a great way to teach children lessons.

    As a parent, what a tool to be able to use this piece to teach love, or everyone’s not the same… That’s why I really hope that people bring their little ones to it. It’s just something new, too, and interesting… I love teaching through theater. If I was a parent, I would love to have a piece like this. And then you’ve got Fiddler [on the Roof] coming up- another family piece. So it’s like these last three we just kind of put together to… tell three very different stories, all lessons.

    Lou.com: And The Wizard of Oz was great. I bet the kids all loved it.

    JL: It was magical. I have done that show four to five times and it’s just such a payoff to stand up there at the end of the night and see these kids just light up seeing these characters, and the memories we’re creating. It is magical… for me even.

    [For instance, after one show]… This little girl just ran and jumped into Dorothy’s arms. She was a little girl [who had] Down syndrome… and she just was so lit up by this piece. And then to see her parents so excited that she was able to experience it. There are just things like that you just can’t-

    Lou.com: Some of your favorite moments.

    JL: Oh my gosh, yes. We’re just standing outside watching the kids with the characters.

    Lou.com: I bet the cast loves that as well.

    JL: They do. It makes it worth it. It’s hard work to be up there. And it’s a reminder of why you’re doing it…. We have some young people in this show too that it’s fun every night just to watch them light up and watch them watch these older role models to do what they do.

    And you know, I love the fact that it’s all African American. I think it’s great.

    Lou.com: The last time you had an all African American cast was for The Color Purple, I believe.

    JL: Yeah. And we try to give roles for a diverse cast. Shows like this aren’t done often, and if they are done, they’re done a lot with white people as well, which I think takes away [from it]. You’d almost have to do it with all white and black, which then creates kind of a hit-on-your-head moment.

    It just is nice- it’s nice for me, at least, to feel as if we’re diversifying our audience and diversifying the JCC and just creating the world again. We’re all in this together.

    Lou.com: Tell me a little bit about the leads and casting. What or who stood out to you during auditions?

    JL: You’re seeing a lot of favorites of CenterStage. We have Tymika Prince, who played Celie [in The Color Purple]… [Tymika] is playing the Goddess of Nature [Mother of the Earth].

    And Tymika McDonald was Mama [in Chicago], Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray- she’s done several [CenterStage] roles. She’s playing Erzulie, the Goddess of Love. Alonzo Richmond is returning. Last time he was in a show was Ragtime, and he’s playing Papa Ge. Then Andre Leegan, who has a brilliant, beautiful voice, is coming back for another show here.

    Cierra Richmond has never done a principal [leading role] for us. She’s playing Ti Moune. She’s done the role before. She’s been in several ensemble roles [for CenterStage] before, so it’s kind of exciting to see her step into the spotlight… Pat Mathison, who played Sophia in The Color Purple is back And Troy Bell, who played the preacher in The Color Purple is back… and then there are probably eight people that have never been in a show with us before.

    It’s nice for me to get an opportunity to work on a piece like this… I chose to not direct The Color Purple, because I didn’t feel like it was appropriate for me to direct it last year, but this one I think is so universal that it doesn’t feel that way…  Having Frank [Goodloe] with me helps, in that we work together very well. Then, A.J. Diggs helped musical direction on The Color Purple, and she’s musical director for this show as well.

    Lou.com:  What makes Cierra Richmond stand out in a way that made you push her towards this breakout role?

    JL: Vocally, she just has a natural ability to let this music soar. And she also has a joy in her soul and spirit that Ti Moune needed to have. She’s just a kind, kind girl, and I think she embodies so much of who Ti Moune is… a little naïve, a little dreamer, wishful, sees the best in everyone or wants the best for everyone. She’s not jaded at all. She’s just all smiles, all joy. Loves what she does, loves singing, loves being here. She’s just a great light in the cast to be able to lead this group… Cierra is Alonzo’s sister, too… and their brother, I think, is going to play in the drums for the pit, so it’s a family affair.

    I love that we’re doing this… it’s just nice to kind of open the doors a bit here.

    Lou.com: Taking a little bit of a step outside the box.

    JL: Absolutely…I hope that families come. …We tried to market very hard that it’s a family show. And Little Mermaid we’ve mentioned a lot- but we’re hoping people aren’t expecting the Disney Little Mermaid, however, because they’re very different… It’s a little darker. The lesson hits a little harder. But everything’s there still.

    Lou.com: It makes the show exciting that it’s different, especially on the heels of having just done The Wizard of Oz, where you put your own spin on a classic.

    JL: And we hope to hit on all that, too, so that all those people who saw that come back and see this.  It’s just a different kind of art. It opens…minds. I’d love for them to see both of them and see the difference between the two, and have the same fun at both… With the children’s theater we have here, I like to expose the kids to different things and I think- what a great teaching tool, with this music and art.

    Lou.com: Some of the best ways to learn are when you don’t even realize learning is happening.

    JL: Exactly. And I’m sure they would have a lot of questions… and be able to ask parents questions.  Like why? Why? And there are no real answers.

    Lou.com: The more you ask, “Why?” the closer you might get to an answer one day.

    JL: Right. Aren’t we all still asking why? Why is this happening? Or how is this happening? I ask that all the time when I hear the news… It dumbfounds you, right? Something’s still not connecting somewhere. Maybe musicals will do it. But it’s been fun.

    Lou.com: So you’re excited for this one.

    JL: I am. I’m hopeful that it transcends… I know people will love it once they see it… I don’t tend to shy away from obscure, because if we all shy away from obscure, they’ll never be done. It’s just getting people to take the time to see obscure. They may become their favorite musical.

    Lou.com: If they just take a chance.

    JL: Take a chance. And it’s kind of trusting us. Trusting me and trusting us. …You know, we may try and push people or challenge people to open their minds a little bit more. They may not always agree with everything… but come see it, and what a dialogue.

    Lou.com: Create a conversation.

    JL: Right…. It’s just melding experiences, using your experiences, and looking to someone else’s… And I would love a family to experience the show together. I think there are some tougher moments in this show obviously than in Wizard of Oz. More real-life moments. But nothing that I think a child should shy away from… Perhaps it will help them and make it more identifiable and make it more accessible to them. Maybe they will understand it a little better when it’s told in this way.

    …We’re all fighting that discrimination in this world right now. There’s not a better piece that tells that story. And that’s all learned behavior- I believe it to be learned behavior. If a parent sees it together with their child, then-

    Lou.com: Sometimes children teach parents.

    JL: Right. Right. If they’re asking why and a parent doesn’t have an answer, maybe they’ll go, I don’t know, why?

    Lou.com: It’s important to question.

    JL: It is. It’s going to feel like a real light piece, but it has some really deep things in it.

    Lou.com: That’s probably what makes it meaningful. Not just a fun show, but relevant, and it matters.

    JL: So relevant… And you know, we all have that. We all want to tell our story. We all want to talk about our parents, our family, and our experiences. It’s what story do we want to tell is something to consider as well.

    What is going to be your path? What is going to be your heritage or your… legacy? Hopefully you’re going to think about that and say you want it to be positive… It’s been a perfect fit to the end of Wizard of Oz, because it’s just a nice transition. And what a group of singers I have. Vocally, they’re just out of this world. Huge, big, fun voices.

    We have a lot of what I call young adult actors in this show. Because we did in Wizard of Oz, and they came through, and they held their own, and we didn’t lower our quality. And what I love is the whole aspect of that mix of these YPAS kids that are working with these professionals, and what they’re going to gain from this experience, and they become better performers. [Some things] you can’t teach in school.

    One night I said, and this was in Wizard of Oz, I said, ‘Watch Collette Delaney. She’s been doing this for 25 years and she knows how to do it. Just watch her. You could sit in a classroom. Just watch her do this.’ …Watch these people and you will learn. You will take it in. Emulate it. You don’t have to copy it, but you want to emulate it in your future- the way you work, how you work, and what the outcome is.

    I love that whole learning… It’s why I do what I do. And then to put the audience on top of that is just icing on the cake.

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    CenterStage preview of 2015-2016 season

    …[Also], people will get to hear our next season at this show. We’ll announce our season at this show.

    Lou.com: Any previews you can share?

    JL: It’s exciting. We definitely have some new, exciting things. And then we’ve brought back a couple classics that I don’t think are done very often. A big, brand new musical that I fell in love with on Broadway. It’s another Andrew Lippa score. More stuff for kids. More stuff for families. We like to choose a rock pop young musical for summer.

    Lou.com: Kind of like Spring Awakening.

    JL: Right, and Chicago. Kind of a younger [show]. In the fall, we always have our big, classic show.

    Lou.com: Like Sweeney Todd.

    JL: Sweeney Todd and Les Mis, even. And then in the winter… we’re going back to our old format, which is a smaller musical- maybe a more obscure. And then we’re doing another big classic, always in March. Then, next season, I will tell you that Melissa Shepherd’s coming back with her Patsy Cline show next year…and we are doing that with rep with another show, so it will be a show very, very different from Patsy Cline.

    We’ve never run a show in rep. That’ll be interesting, where within these twelve days, we’ll have two shows playing simultaneously. We’re even going to have some 11:00 o’clock shows- to give you an indication.

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    Once on This Island runs February 12th-22nd. Tickets are $20 in advance and $22 at the door. Call 502-238-2709, or visit the website by clicking here

    Showtimes:

    Thursday, February 12 at 7:30pm

    Saturday, February 14 at 7:30pm

    Sunday, February 15 at 2:00pm

    Sunday, February 15 at 7:00pm

    Monday, February 16 at 7:30pm

    Thursday, February 19 at 7:30pm

    Saturday, February 21 at 7:30pm

    Sunday, February 22 at 2:00pm

    Sunday, February 22 at 7:00pm

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    Cover Photo: Courtesy of CenterStage's facebook page; Logo: Courtesy of Shutterstock/Anna Jedkynak; Second Photo: Courtesy of Shutterstock/Ramona Kaulitzki; Third Photo: Courtesy of Shutterstock/YanLev; Fourth Photo: Courtesy of CenterStage; Fifth Photo: Courtesy of Shutterstock/VMM; Sixth Photo: Courtesy of Shutterstock/Cienpies Design; Seventh Photo: Courtesy of Shutterstock/Syaheir Azizan

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    About Julie Lamb

    Curly-haired owner of one massive sweet tooth, believer of Harry Potter and Disney fairytales, and a fierce lover of all things literary and the arts.

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