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    Bit to Do

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    CenterStage just roared, full-fledged electric sensation, with the first show of its 2015-2016 season, Tommy. Up next: an exciting journey into the hilarious mind and kind heart of Dolly Parton, through movie to new musical Broadway hit, 9 to 5. Artistic Director John Leffert chatted with to give us a sneak preview into the saucy fun we can expect, starting this Thursday night.

    ** How does it feel to switch from Tommy mode to now Dolly Parton mode with 9 to 5? It has to be kind of a drastic difference. Definitely fun, but different. How do you shift with the director mentality?

    John Leffert: … With Tommy, the subject matter is very serious. Very contemporary, the way it’s staged. And this musical is very standard, traditional, in its staging- in its ideas, in its style… I think you prep so far in advance for it. I had already shifted my gears long before Tommy. You said it’s more traditional. Obviously with Tommy, you were able to put that visionary spin on it. You always do with every show. Because movie was this cult classic, do you feel the same sense of freedom as a show like Tommy? Or is that a challenge as a director for staging that you have to color in the lines more?

    JL: Well, I don’t think I knew when we chose 9 to 5 that there was this cult following of the film. When I talk about it, there are people whose eyes light up and they know every line. They know everything about the film. I’ve been kind of floored by that. The show is very close to the film. Dialogue-wise, and we found it even some of the underscoring of the hospital scene is exactly like the movie.

    [Dolly] has taken great care to make sure that the film stays alive in this piece. You do have to stay within the lines, I think a little bit… I think staying true to the piece- it’s clear what Dolly wanted with this piece, and that is to stay true to the original. She spent a great length of time trying to make sure that it is a pretty strong translation.

    But there are some interesting- not twists, but they contemporized it a bit. The music is a bit more today, I think. It was originally produced in 1980, I believe. It takes place in 1979. The music definitely doesn’t feel like that period, I think. The music feels contemporary and new. In what ways?

    JL: Well,… it feels like a pop musical. I know it’s a cross between Broadway and pop. Do you think there are more pop leanings that make the show fresher?

    JL: I do. There are some Broadway moments. The show originally starred Stephanie J. Block, this huge Broadway star. There is that 11:00 o’clock number. You know, “Stay Out” is there. That’s definitely not a pop number. Whenever a show is written for three individual women, you can tell that it was written for these women. It’s always kind of tough for these actors to step into their own.

    I think it’s a perfect mix. I hadn’t seen the show at all until I went over to Clarksville, a little theater in town, to see it when they did it. And I was blown away how it’s just- it’s Dolly Parton. I felt like I was listening to one of her albums at the time. There are certain songs that if I didn’t know it was Dolly, I would have been like, ‘Oh. Dolly Parton wrote this.’ I smiled at that, because I felt it was- it’s what we want when we think of this piece. And there’s a surprise that she even narrates part of the show… So we’ll hear her voice even in the show. She definitely feels strongly about the show and wants to keep it as part of her.

    Definitely the Dora Lee character is written as Dolly Parton. There’s definitely a character that will resemble Dolly Parton.  In one of her introductions to the women, she basically says ‘She’s me.’ So you can’t ignore it. It is who she is. It’s that character the film is written in. And once it’s iconically played by such a strong woman, you can’t separate the two ever again. And the music is her.

    When she wrote those Dora Lee pieces, they’re in her voice. They’re in her sound. They’re who she is. There’s a song called “Backwards Barbie,” which if you know Dolly, it’s how she’s kind of described herself her whole life. You can’t separate that. You can’t run from that. So you’re honoring her sparkling sense of spirit, her sassy wit?

    JL: Oh yeah. Well, that’s what the show is. It’s three women that have that sass. And I told the men on the first night, “They’re going to spend the next two hours making fun of you.” It’s a woman’s piece. It’s not that men won’t enjoy the piece, but it’s definitely… from a time in our period that I don’t think we should be so proud of as men.

    The lead man is of course kind of a buffoon. Chauvinistic. Horrible boss. Kind of gets what’s coming to him in the story?

    JL: Absolutely. It’s no question who you’re rooting for the whole time… It is a throwback to our time in 1979, where there were secretaries. In her introduction of the piece, she says, ‘We’re not trying to be anything but who we were. We were secretaries then. We weren’t administrative assistants.’ And they were proud to be secretaries. It’s not to diminish any of their work they did. It’s just the work that was there for them at that time. But you do see a woman grow to be CEO of a company. And at that time, that was unheard of. There’s definitely been a change in society since then.

    JL: Oh, I think so! Oh, but I mean, we’re not done. There’s obviously tons of chauvinism. Feminism is really spreading its wings these days. People are trying to be not afraid of it as much.

    JL: There’s no question. It still exists. They call it the Good Ole Boys Club often in certain businesses. So that’s the relevance there. Despite some of the evolution.

    JL: Oh, I think so. It’s always about self-growth. There [are] always women who can model themselves on these characters in that there’s a woman whose husband left her at a late age, is finding herself late in life, and who is becoming strong. Not just a woman- a man could find that as well. There [are] perceptions of someone who looks like Dolly – that you automatically perceive in a certain way… The women would judge her just as much in the show, you know. We see that too. Even Dolly, you look at and people think she’s dumb. She is so smart though.

    JL: She is so smart! Smart like a fox. So, those all still exist. Even though it’s set in a certain time, definitely a time of women not rising to the top of the work force… We’re not necessarily that far back, but we’re not all the way there yet either. I think it’s still relevant.

    You know, it’s kind of a throwback too to talk about the certain copy machines of that time. The only thing missing is probably everyone would have had an ash tray at their desk and been smoking in the office. That’s the only thing kind of true to the period that you’re missing in that regard. But it’s definitely a simpler time in our life and it’s kind of nice to take two hours and be a part of that for a bit. I still remember it. I’m old enough to remember this period. How does that influence your perspective?

    JL: Well, you look at what’s happening in 1979. Richard Nixon had just left. Look at what’s going on in the country. The bicentennial had just happened. You look at what was important during that time. It was kind of that kick-off of times changing in America, with women changing and the idea of women changing. You can’t ignore the period. It’s been very important to me in staying as true to the period as we can with costuming and such. What kind of costumes can we expect?

    JL: It’s true seventies. Much of the show, it’s tough, because when you think of 9 to 5, you think Dolly and bright and colorful. But if you remember, most of this show is about this drab, beige, office that can’t really change until Act II. Sounds like you have a lot of fun in Act II.

    JL: We do. And I’m even taking some color in Act I. Any time that they are away from the office, I am looking for color and costumes. And taking those iconic seventies looks and iconic seventies colors. You know, people are going to see a color and know it’s the seventies. There’s that green from the seventies and that orange from the seventies. All the appliances were and the phones were. You’re going to see that in the show. We’re going to remember. It’s going to be a nod back to that time. So you think it’s going to be a kind of fun blast to the past.

    JL: I think so. I hope so. It is definitely a period piece. The language is there. The ideas are there. The whole montage of the opening of 9 to 5, you’re going to see iconic careers, hair, that kind of thing of the seventies. You know, Charlie’s Angels was popular at that time.

    You look at Farrah Fawcett and you look at all those things that were iconic of the time, what was popular at that time. You look at Act II, when the actual secretaries get to make the desks their own, and you might see one who is an Elvis Presley fan. You’re going to see an insight into characters… That’s where you’re having fun individualizing it. Using those tiny details to create this major glimpse into that time.

    JL: I hope so. You know, in an office, you’ve got six people, and everyone is six different people. You should be able to identify – usually, you can look at their work space, and see who they are. In this show, you can’t get a sense of that individual until Act II, where you see them grow and become the people they are. The audience gets to kind of see that growth, take that path with them, and see them come to life.

    … I sometimes feel when I’m directing this piece, I’m directing a sitcom. I joke I sometimes feel I’m directing the Carol Burnett show. It’s that physical comedy. It’s that broad comedy. Which, again, is a nod to the seventies. You look at Three’s Company. You look at these seventies sitcoms, which were so popular. And it’s of that style. Are you emphasizing that sitcom/physical comedy feel in a different way than you would otherwise?

    JL: Well, I think it’s kind of innate in the piece. I think it’s nodding again to the style. It’s taking what was popular and how the movie was originally intended. You know, the hospital scene rings to mind. There’s not a song in it yet. It’s kind of that tip-toeing with them. The music tells the story without them even knowing what they’re doing. When Roz comes down to the bathroom and she’s overheard them, it’s like a Mission Impossible kind of thing. They’ve written it this way. You can’t not play it this way. So, it’s been finding a way to stay honest and true. Sometimes not play something on it, and yet, give it what it needs.

    It’s been fun with the actors. You know, with Hart and Dora Lee and the dictation. The whole show – we go inside their minds. And each character kind of has an opportunity to show us what’s going on in there. Like Hart, where he’s dreaming about Dora Lee. Or Roz, the secretary, where she’s dreaming she’s in love with Hart. She has a whole number that’s a fantasy. And of course, the three girls, we know their fantasy… And we’ve used a piece of the office that might be a part of their fantasies. So that’s how you play into it.

    JL: Yeah, so if Judy is having difficulty with the copy machine, maybe she’ll ride that in, in her fantasy as her gangster type person. And then Dora Lee with the office chair might become a saddle. And Violet with the poisoning. It’s definitely a Snow White character – same as the film. But maybe it’s the coffee area in the office where she’s toiling the coffee. It’s kind of trying to choose that. It pokes fun of itself a little bit. Kind of like Dolly. She spent her life poking fun at herself. Very self-deprecating.

    JL: But in a humorous [way]. You know, she’s self-confident. She’s self-confident all the way. That self-confidence has to carry her.

    JL: And that’s what the film is. I feel like it’s a time where almost poking fun at these characters, but these characters come to rise to the top. They’re the heroes at the same time.

    JL: Exactly. And I feel like that’s where Dolly has been her whole life. It’s like she’s in on the joke the whole time.

    JL: Absolutely she is. There’s no question. And she still is today. If you look at YouTube, she was at Pigeon Forge. She had a sold-out concert. She was in Nashville about a week ago. She’s still doing the same schtick, the same things. What I like to say about this piece – the heart of this piece is so strong. You just love these women and you love what happens. Why are you cheering for someone who kidnaps someone? They’re breaking laws left and right, but you’re still cheering for them. I remember you felt that way about Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

    JL: Absolutely. It’s Dolly. You mentioned that it had that same heart. Is that what drew you most to this story?

    JL: Well, you know, we always look for pieces – this is a new musical and a good musical. But they’ve got these movie-to-musicals, which is a big trend on Broadway right now. And there’s some that are done well, and some that are not. More are not, in my opinion. But this one is done well. It’s a good translation. It stays true to the film. It’s what people want to see. And I think it’s because Dolly had her hands in it from the beginning. And still does.

    This narration she does didn’t exist when they were in New York. They’ve since put it on for the tour to keep her relevant. And I think they know Dolly will sell the piece. … I think it’s what an audience wanted to see… You’re going to remember…. ‘Was America like that at that time?’ And yes, yes it was. And hopefully you’ll even see resemblances today of, ‘Oh my gosh, we really haven’t come that far.’ Do you think this one is more of a family show than Tommy?

    JL: It is a family show. There’s some double entendre, with Dolly and her physicality. This Hart character is definitely a sexist. He is not politically correct in the work place. When you direct that, do you try and maximize that as much as possible?

    JL: I do. I have. Again, it’s the comedic part of that. There’s whole numbers about Hart and how he views Dora Lee. But then in the end, it turns around, and we see Dora Lee the opposite with him. We have been trying to kind of play with that. But yeah, I don’t shy away from that. I told the person playing Dora Lee, you’re going to be costumed as you think you are. We’re not going to shy away from that. Who is playing each of these fabulous Dolly-inspired characters?

    JL: Dora Lee, Dolly’s character, is played by Jessica Adamson, who played Mrs. Walker in Tommy. She was great! Was that kind of a breakout role for her?

    JL: Well, she’s been with us a long time, but she went away to school. She played Ado Annie. She played several characters back when she was much younger. But then she went away to school and has come back. So yeah, this is kind of her first kind of return to that principal role. She’s older. She’s matured as a performer and strong. She’s great in this role. Her voice fits this show like no other. Stylistically, it’s perfect for her.

    Julie McGuffey is playing Violet, who is the Lily Tomlin role. She is our adult female lead in Spring Awakening, and this is her second turn at that.

    And then, Lauren McCombs… is playing Judy Bernley. CenterStage favorite – with good reason.

    JL: She is a CenterStage favorite. She’s played such broad roles. She’s played Eponine. She’s played Audrey. And this is a bit of a stretch for her…backwards, pulled back… It’s the Jane Fonda character. It’s the character I think that is most different in the film. Stephanie J. Block, I think played it a little differently… She’s got that great number in the end. Do you like that change? From the movie translated to the Broadway stage?

    JL: I’m a huge Stephanie J. Block fan… She’s… Elphaba. There’s actually a joke in the piece that when they wrote it… She says, “No good deed goes unpunished.” In New York, it got a huge laugh. It’s funny the way they have nods to original people like that. I’m excited about it. Sometimes, when you’re listening to the original, you hear Elphaba in that writing, like that last number. You hear that style… You know the original Violet was Allison Janney, who’s not necessarily a singer, but her comedic timing is brilliant. I think it really is great.

    And then Rusty Henle, who played the Sheriff [in other Dolly musical CenterStage has produced, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas] ironically, is Hart. Oh, he’s back for another Dolly! He’s going to enjoy that.

    JL: Yeah, we were talking about his character. I said, “You know, you’re just the butt of the joke the whole show. So you can’t really play – you just have to be honest with the character. You’re kind of a cross between… the Captain and the Sherriff.” [Rusty Henle had played Captain Von Trapp in a prior CenterStage production of The Sound of Music.] Those are two very different characters.

    JL: They are! He’s supposed to be very just two-dimensional… The butt of the joke for the next two hours. It’s been a lot of fun to rehearse. We laugh every night. This show is just really funny. It’s written well…[Dolly] is such a good musician. And I think she’s done a good job of translating the ideas from the show, and changing it into great, beautiful music.

    It’s like [Best Little Whorehouse in Texas]. It’s a great piece of theater and now they’ve run that back to Broadway!…. Are you already directing the next show, Oliver?

    JL: I am. My Oliver is a little different than what I think people think of Oliver to be. I think people think of Oliver as the male Annie… but it’s definitely not. It’s dark…which I think people don’t remember until they see it… It’s definitely a heavier piece. London and British… But funny – the Fagan character is just so complex. Michael Drury is going to be playing Fagan, the artistic director of Pandora is coming to play Fagan for us, so we’re excited. That’s not until October… so we’ve got a bit of a breath between 9 to 5 [and Oliver]. What’s your favorite part about this show?

    JL: I think it’s seeing these three women change. There’s beautiful music. Beautiful, belt-y, strong women music… They’re just moving songs to me. The nod to Dolly. You just smile. “Backwards Barbie” is probably one of my favorite songs in the show. It says a lot, it speaks a lot, and it’s… just a nice little insight into the characters and how Dolly used that music to – which I think she’s done her whole life – is use music to give us insights into her soul, her heart. That’s what she’s done with this piece. And you feel like you’re getting a glimpse through a lot of the music. She’s done a great job of giving these women a chance to speak… It’s fun to laugh, too. Everyone likes to laugh.

    JL: Absolutely. I can’t think of a physical, big comedic piece like this that we’ve done in a long time, so it’s a bit refreshing…

    It’s going to be a lot of fun. Frank Goodloe did the choreography. The scenery is done by a new scenic designer who came on board. Again, there’s a lot of new people who continue to be involved…

    The script mandates a lot. We have taken some of the scenes and maybe combined them. Like the coffee area and the Xerox room are not two separate spaces… The orchestra is going to be on stage again with this plexi-glass that is paneled… He’s got this piece that flies in that is almost like that grid, fluorescent kind of feel. It’s very geometric, which as you know, the seventies period – it’s a very geometric period.

    A lot of their patterns – we looked at wallpapers and we looked at designs to kind of get a feeling for what that period told. Hart’s office will be covered in different pieces of fabric that’s color and stylistic, almost like wallpaper, that can lend itself to every period. And we’ve definitely concentrated on color of each scene being kind of that iconic – Hart’s office, covered in that wood that’s not wood. You know that wood? It’s as far as wood as you can come and it was popular in the seventies.

    The furniture is all true to the seventies. And then Violet’s house has greens and teal-y kind of sixties/seventies colors. We’ve spent a lot of time giving a nod to the period, but kind of simplifying, remembering that it’s about the story – it’s not about the scenery in the show… If you could leave everyone with one note on why they should see this musical – obviously, it’s going to be funny, with heart, Dolly. What’s something an audience might not even be considering that is a reason they need to see this?

    JL: Any time we do a new musical – well, one: I think everyone kind of needs this lightness, this humor… we can all use two hours where we’re just taken away by a time period that was simpler. If you think back to 1979, it was a simpler time. One of the rehearsals last week was when all the cell phone [shutdowns] happened, and everyone was crazy… I thought, back then, that wouldn’t happen. It’s a simpler time. It’s a simpler musical. I think that’s why.

    Just step back with us. And yet, give a nod to the new… I think supporting those new pieces is important… Come have fun with us for an evening. Laugh. Let yourself go. And remember… I think it’s a nod to civil rights. And women’s rights. All that’s going on…

    There’s always a group of people that I feel are fighting for something, and there always will be. And that’s a good thing…

    It just seems like a good nod to the past with a tongue-in-cheek Dolly sense of humor. I think we could all go through life with a little more Dolly sense of humor. I agree.

    JL: We could learn a big lesson from her. I wish more people would take her seriously and look at her, look at the good, look at her heart. I think we could all learn a lot from what she has to say. And we’ve probably taken her for granted for a very long time. She’s almost 70 years old…And you know, when you hear that intro to 9 to 5, it just takes you… you can’t help but feel a smile come across your face… She takes you on that journey and she wants you there with her… You have these women that are strong and you see them grow in these two and a half hours. And I think that’s a great thing to see.


    Opening night for Dolly's muscial delight starts this Thursday evening, at 7:30 p.m. 

    * Thursday, August 20 at 7:30
    * Saturday, August 22 at 7:30
    * Sunday, August 23 at 2 and 7 pm
    * Monday, August 24 at 7:30
    * Thursday, August 27 at 7:30
    * Saturday, August 29 at 7:30
    * Sunday, August 30 at 2 and 7 pm

    You can order tickets by calling 502-238-2709 or by clicking here. Call the box office at 502-459-0660 for further questions.

    Children (10 and under): $16
    Adults: $20

    It will be an uproarious night of unabashed fun you won't want to miss!

    Photos: Courtesy of JCC CenterStage's facebook page


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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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