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    CenterStage is one of Louisville's hidden treasures, and so is Artistic Director John Leffert. Leffert spared a some moments to discuss discuss an show from CenterStage's 2015-2016 season, Oliver!, and give our readers a behind-the-scenes sneak peek into this classic being brought to life on stage. Tell me a little bit about what Oliver means to you and why chose to produce it for this season.

    John Leffert: "You know, what I love about Oliver – You can’t deny its original source material; it’s a Charles Dickens piece. The story is just touching, and… the characters he writes are so rich and so complex. It’s such a great show to be able to sink your teeth into as a director, and then to work with these actors, and to work with young actors too. You know, the show is about them and it centers around them. It’s not like a lot of shows with children where they play second… In scene six in Act I, they have four numbers and one scene. It’s incredibly powerful.

    I got to direct this at the Ampitheater in Louisville for a music theater in Louisville right before they left the Ampitheater. It was an incredibly moving show and great piece that I got to do out there, and I fell in love with the piece even more so. I am very excited to bring it to CenterStage.

    A lot of people … think of it as, oh, it’s the male Annie. Well, it’s not that. It’s a little darker. It has some really difficult subjects for young people to grasp. A lot of it will go over their heads. They will concentrate hopefully on the fun. But the adults- there are some really relevant issues. Abuse, there’s murder, there’s all kinds of things that are happening in this piece, typical of a Dickens piece…

    I joked to someone, basically, we did Sweeney Todd and then this is the same period as Sweeney Todd; just a different part of London. It’s interesting how this same time last year, we were visiting London, too." Nice transition, there. London to London. Both period pieces.

    JL: "You know, I’m excited. I’m excited to see, you know, the set is going to be amazing. It’s a big unit piece, as we like to do here. Just furniture pieces on and off. Again, similar to Sweeney Todd. Different designer, though, completely. It’s just going to give a sense of London, a sense of the locations, and a lot of wood, a lot of just kind of that dark- a lot of places for the kids to hide and be and that kind of thing. But there’s bright spots to the show. There’s “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy?” The kids’ numbers are a lot of fun. In Act I, we go light. In Act II, we go dark very fast. “Oom Pah Pah” is fun. There’s a lot of great things. I’m excited." Who is your Dodger? And who is your Fagan? Who is your Nancy?

    JL: "Michael Drury, the artistic director from Pandora is playing Fagan for us. He’s going to be great. Our Dodger is Riley McNerny. He’s done some things for us. He was actually in A Christmas Carol at some point at Actors [Theatre]. I don’t know if it was last season. Our little Oliver, Charlie Norman- this will be his first show! He has been participating in CenterStage Academy. He was JoJo in Seussical the Musical last year for the younger CenterStage Players, so this will be his venture out onto the main stage… He’s done a great job. And there’s something nice about that, I think, that newness and naivete a little bit plays into the role. And you know, Nancy, Jessica Adamson, who played Mrs. Walker in Tommy." This is definitely her season.

    JL: "It is her season! Yeah, she was Dora Lee as well [in 9 to 5]." Jessica Adamson was incredible in 9 to 5 as Dora Lee. I remember you mentioned it was as if that part was made for her voice. How is this a different departure?

    JL: "You know, a lot of people cast Nancy older. She’s only supposed to be about 19 in the show. She’s one of Fagan’s kind of protégées and has just grown up, as is Bill Sykes. So, they’re typically cast older. Well, especially Bill being the kind of villain of the show." Who’s Bill?

    JL: "Brian Bowles. He was Mark in Rent, most recently. He has taken some time off as of late. He was in Little Mary Sunshine in Chicago. This is going to be quite a different role for him. But they are supposed to be young. And so that’s kind of a different take that people may think is different to our production. But then, you know, you research it and those characters are young. Bill is just the Artful Dodger many years later, turned kind of to the dark side. It’s really a great cast. We have a lot of new people in it again. We have 24 children in the show… They are in the first workhouse scene…. But then they’re in the town scenes- children in the town…. It’s a fast-moving show. It’s a big show. You know, that whole finale scene, we’ve got I think a cast of like 48 people. So, it’s huge." What’s you’re favorite part of directing this show? Obviously as a director, you always have certain parts of the show you are looking forward to seeing live. I remember with Tommy, you enjoyed the staging.

    JL: "Well, I love directing on a unit set. I just think the richness of these characters. I think that’s what I think I love. Digging into why these characters- how Fagan became who he is. And where he goes from this journey. Who is Dodger and where did he come from? It’s all these characters, to get to where they are in this piece. And then you look at Dickens’ world and I always wonder why he concentrated so much on that so dark time of London and what it was. It’s just interesting to me.

    Nancy’s character is particularly great, because of that big 11 o’clock number, “As Long As He Needs Me.” It’s been a favorite of mine for a very long time. It plays into this whole idea that she’ll stay with him no matter what- those kinds of issues. You know, it was written a long time ago, but it’s so relevant, I think.

    It just touches me. The music. It’s so lush and beautiful. [Lionel] Bart’s score is just, I think, incredible. We’re going to actually have the largest orchestra we’ve ever had- live piece. I think it’s over 15 pieces. And they’re going to be backstage. We’ve built a little place for them behind the set, so they won’t be out front. A lot of the show people will come from the audience again. We’re starting to do that more often… “Who Will Buy?” will be out amongst the people some. I think it’s going to be fun and interesting." I think “Who Will Buy?” is one of the prettiest songs I’ve heard.

    JL: "It’s beautiful." It’s like a wistful sadness, but there’s this gorgeousness to it.

    JL: "Right. It’s… almost like a pre-Sondheim, where it has that four or five themes going on into this “Who Will Buy?” It’s really a beautiful piece. In the film, it’s such a striking scene in the film. It is almost balladic. It’s gorgeous, a lot of white and light. And it’s such a place in the show where it’s getting ready to head on a very dark path. So it is kind of a breath of fresh air, especially where it falls." I remember in Tommy you also had some dark moments in the show, some darker characters. But you specifically said you directed those moments, those characters not from a place of total villain/evil/sadistic, but keeping in mind the journey behind the shadows. How did you incorporate a similar perspective with Oliver?

    JL: "Well, we are all a product of our experience and a product of our environment. Did Bill start out as a bad person? You know, I don’t think so. I’m not sure. There’s always arguments of both that exist, whether you were born this way or not, but I believe these people are all products of their upbringing and of their environment, and that’s what has created these people.

    And there’s a moment after Bill and… Nancy have their final bout, and he regrets. You can see it on his face. It’s that out-of-control, what have I become? He’s just a very desperate man, it feels like. As far as Nancy goes, she loves him. It’s a pure, unadulterated, just- she loves this man." Beyond reason or measure.

    JL: "She can’t break that. She can’t break it. No matter what. No matter how many people tell her. No matter the threats. No matter the bruises. No matter- she can’t do it. And then, there’s this Oliver character who is searching for love; searching for acceptance.

    And you know, Fagan, to me- I talked to Michael some as we worked this character- he loves these boys. These boys are his family. And he has his dark moments as well, but for the most part, he’s taken these orphans, and yes, they do steal. But he’s given them a home. He’s given them food." It’s like he’s passed along a family profession.

    JL: "He has. And that’s heartwarming. I love that relationship between Fagan and these boys. And these boys with each other. And what that’s created. It just feels- it’s taken a villain and really made him a good guy in the show." Which is always more interesting than just a straight-up villain.

    JL: "It is. And I ended the show a little different. It’s written to have a big happy ending finale with everyone. I end it the scene prior to that where it ends with Fagan. And it ends with him walking and everyone’s gone and everything has happened to these different characters. And then there’s Fagan who comes out of hiding. And all of his money is gone, everything he’s worked for is gone, and he’s evaluating what’s he going to do. Then, he just walks off into…

    It hopefully leaves people thinking, I don’t know what the next chapter is for all of these people. I think the richness of the characters is what and they’re all dark, quite honestly. If you leave Oliver, and a few light, every single one of these characters has bad in them- and that’s unusual. You know, usually you have a big strong protagonist. But every single one of these characters has flaws- they’re flawed." That’s what makes it relatable. Not that everyone is flawed in the same way as these characters.

    JL: "Sure. But we all are to a certain extent. We all have our things." We all have our set of characteristics and not all of them are- angelic.

    JL: "Right. Yeah. You know, the whole thing too, at the Jewish Community Center with Fagan. Is he Jewish? Was he written anti-Semitically from Dickens’ point of view? There’s no doubt in reading the book that there’s something there. I mean, he calls him “The Jew.” It is written with an anti-Semitic tone. And how the musical deals with this character, you know, I think we have to be sensitive to. He’s always costumed stereotypically Jewish with the Jewish bottle-dancer hat and the long frock coat. And then there’s the whole miser portion that can lead into some people’s stereotypes. So, the musical handles it that way.

    It’s inherent in the character, so Michael and I have tried to discuss what that means being at the JCC and you know, through history. Like Shylock- that Shakespearean character is considered- well, he just is anti-Semitic. This character is equally as debated and I think it’s been shied away by many Jewish agencies. I think there’s a lot of debate. We’re not concentrating, but a lot of that is inherent in the script. And his music has a very Jewish flavor. It’s the violin. It’s very Fiddler-esque at a lot of times. And we have put some of his movement in that. I mean, in my show, he is Jewish. It’s just- I don’t think it’s a negative." So is that how you change it with the direction? Clearly, you’re ending it with Fagan.

    JL: "Yeah, he’s the central character of the show. I mean, to me, he’s the lead of the show. Even Oliver. Fagan is the character that kind of draws all these people into one place. It’s centered around him." I think Fagan is arguably the most interesting of the cast of characters.

    JL: "The most complex, no question. Yeah, I did add it. There’s moments that they do a big Fiddler dance. And he’s taught all the boys how to do it with him. There’s definitely more flavor of this- I don’t know if it’s because we’re here or not. But to me, the music speaks to this. That’s kind of why." You said that you originally fell in love with this piece over again at the Ampitheater. Did you have that there or is this something that has changed?

    JL: "It was not as inherent. I think it’s been added more for me being here and being more sensitive to it. I didn’t- there was not as much of that. Besides what’s inherent in the script. The dance wasn’t there, the movement; that was not there the first time I did it. Stylistically, it’s pretty much the same show.

    I would say as a director, when you direct a show, you create what you want it to be; and it’s hard to get away from that the second time. It’s still what I- it’s going to move very fast. It’s going to speak to a lot of people. But I think people might be surprised to see how dark it is. I tend to lean that way. I don’t know what that says about me, but I tend to- I always look at the author’s intent, and I think that’s what Dickens intended for this piece. So, I’m hoping to give a musical version of that." One of the most important things you have done as a director is that you never shy away from the darker shadows of a piece. But you also don’t knock people over the head with it. You have a balance and you handle it, I think, in a pretty artful way.

    JL: "You know, musical theatre is criticized often for being light and happy. And so much of our audience wants light and happy. It’s just- I think you have to be true to the piece. Whatever the piece gives you, you just have to stay true to that, and it’s going to be an honest portrayal; an honest storytelling of what was intended.

    It’s interesting, because I always go back to the original source material, whether that be a book, Dickens’ book, or the film 9 to 5, or whatever that is. Because to me, that’s where I want to go. I don’t need to change the original source material. Whatever they intended it to be at the beginning I think is what we have to stay true to.

    Some musical theaters are criticized for staying light, because really, that is what our audiences want. And I’m not one of those. I don’t think that’s the answer. I think it’s just, tell the story in an honest way, and whatever it is, people will like it." You’ve chosen darker pieces, though, like Wit, and New Brain.

    JL: "Well, theater follows life, and if you ignore one whole side of life, then we’re not saying true to what theater should be. Theater is bringing life to the stage; it’s teaching; it’s letting people experience live feelings and live emotions. Those all can’t be happy. That’s not what we do or what we feel. And I don’t think we’re giving the richness that theater can provide if we only do the light all the time." Part of it is this time of year- as you said, you did Sweeney Todd this time last year; it’s kind of fitting to not just choose rainbow bubblegum. I feel like it’s fall. Halloween is approaching. People are going to want to see a darker twist to things.

    JL: "Some people do. Some people never want it. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t think some people like to feel when they come to the theater. Some people like to escape from who they are. I don’t ever want them to be able to do that. I would love for them to escape into this world, but hopefully, they’ll look in this world and see something in this mirror that reflects to them. To me, that’s when you enjoy theatre the most; it’s when you can find something; some character you identify with; some life experience you will relate to up there.

    Even if that’s as simple as singing and laughing, remembering the first time you saw the film with your family. You know, I’ve heard that so much with this show; more than almost any other. You know, “I love Oliver! I remember the first time…” and then they’ll give me a childhood memory. I didn’t have that experience with this show for some reason… There are shows like that like The Sound of Music for me. This is one that escaped me as a child…I just didn’t know it. I also think they’ve done a lot of [remakes] of Oliver, like a cartoon remake Disney did of Oliver- isn’t there a dog, Oliver? There’s a stray." There is actually!

    JL: "It’s called Oliver and Company. It’s something I think even kids can relate to that know this story, in a different way. This kind of lost child. And it has similarities to Annie. Annie stole some points of it, because there’s the locket; there’s the orphan; there’s the lost parents; there’s finding." Searching for love.

    JL: "Searching for something. Oliver comes from a sweeter place, a more innocent place, I think. More, just completely hopeful and wistful and naïve. He’s learning. He’s not coming from even the same place Annie came from, I don’t think. Still, that orphan theme of searching and why am I alone?

    You know, they don’t seem to spend a whole lot of time in this piece… it’s more about his journey and where he’s going to go to. He doesn’t talk about it a lot. He’s got that one “Where is love?” moment, …amongst coffins, which was important to me. This whole coffin scene is pretty crucial to me. It’s very comedic, but scenically, I want it to feel dark. I even want a child’s coffin in that scene. I want it to feel like this real thing that these people immerse themselves in, and he’s having to sleep amongst this. To me, it makes it so much stronger." What do you hope audience members find in his journey?

    JL: "Acceptance. And I think we come from a very judgmental society these days. Not to always judge a book by their cover. I think in the show you’ll see that just because Oliver is standing there, [someone] thinks he was pick-pocketed by this orphan kid.

    Just- kindness. I don’t think there is going to teach any world-shaking life lessons, but it teaches us to look inside ourselves and be kind and love each other and love one another and not be judgmental. Just the way we’re all supposed to be. Sort of what the world is placed upon us.

    You look at these kids. These kids don’t feel sorry for themselves in the show. They’re having a ball. They’re not all saying, 'Why me? Why am I an orphan?'" Just Oliver?

    JL: "Well, he’s not even doing that. He’s-" Questioning.

    JL: "I think he wants to find acceptance. I don’t even know if he knows what he is searching for until he finds it." A lot of people don’t though, in life.

    JL: "Right! Right. There’s this moment where he wakes up and he just hugs this strange woman who’s tucking him in. Well, he doesn’t know her, but it’s a warmth that should feel- maybe he’s found it. And then when he finds it, I’m struck by a moment where he doesn’t want Mr. Brownlow to think he’s a liar.

    That was a moment in Act II where Bill takes him and he has these books that he’s promised Mr. Brownlow he’ll deliver to the bookseller. And the one thing he keeps saying is, “You can’t have those books! I promised!” He’s more concerned as to what they’ll think of him as opposed to being worried about himself being in a dangerous place." Have you already started work on Big Fish?

    JL: "I have. I have been working on Big Fish since I saw it two years ago! I am. I’ve read the book, seen the film recently, gone back to the original novel. I’ve spent some time there. Early stages. Just getting a feel. How the pieces are different and how they’re similar. What the musical misses and that kind of thing.

    But I’ve been thinking about most of it since I saw it. I’m very excited about it. I’m very excited to dig into it. I don’t typically dive in deep to the next show until I’m done with one, because my heart needs to still be here- my mind needs to be with this show until we open. Then, I can dive in. I typically kind of peripherally let it simmer there." So, simmering. You just did 9 to 5. Now, Oliver. Next, Big Fish. What do you take away from doing these three shows back-to-back-to-back?

    JL: "They’re all very different." Do you like that though?

    JL: "Well, I like it for our audience. I don’t ever want to be a theater where we do all the same stuff. I do. There are similar things between Tommy, Oliver, and Big Fish. There seems to be an idea of a journey going on for all these characters. And though the journey may be different and there’s a lot of inward of all three of these shows, as far as self-yearning and learning.

    9 to 5 is just pure fun… But even then, those ladies grew, with what they started out and what they became is a journey for them. Did they know they had that in them? I don’t think they did. They all started as three weak or stereotypical women in that time and they all ended up being different women. There might be more similarities than we think." If you had to leave any last words for’s audience, what do you want them to know about this show- about your vision for this show?

    JL: "You know, …I love that it is great for children and great for adults. You know, sometimes when adults bring a child to a show… this has something for everyone. Dickens did a brilliant job. Even more so, the musical author, [Lionel] Bart did an amazing job taking this complex story and bringing it in musical form to the stage.

    It’s classic. And classics are so often negated these days. And I don’t know why Oliver is not done more; because it is as complex as any Sondheim show. It’s as complex as Sweeney Todd. I don’t know why people don’t do it.

    Because some of these classic musicals are why we are able to do Sweeney Todd or Rent. They’re just as good. It’s getting young people to understand that. I love the idea of introducing classics to new people that have never seen it. And they’re like, “Ohh,” and I’m like, “Yes!” It’s that- that there’s something in Oliver for everyone, whether you’re a new musical theatre lover, old- classic, young, family- there’s something in this show for everyone. And I guarantee you will leave humming these songs. Because they get in your brain and you cannot get them out, and there’s several of them in the show that every day, I’m like, “Oh my gosh! I have been humming ‘Oom Pah Pah’ for two hours.’” And it’s fun.

    You will laugh. You will hopefully be moved to tears at points. You will be frightened for Oliver at some points. You’ll experience the gamut- you’ll run the gamut of this show. You’ll want to help him. It just really takes you through a nice journey and a beautiful story."


    CenterStage Oliver!

    Left: Charlie Norman as Oliver; Right: Riley McNerny as the Artful Dodger

    Oliver! will be opening at CenterStage this Thursday night, October 22nd, and playing through Sunday afternoon, November 8th. 

    * Thursday, October 22, 7:30 pm
    * Saturday, October 24, 7:30 pm
    * Sunday, October 25, 2:00 pm
    * Monday, October 26, 7:30 pm
    * Thursday, October 29, 7:30 pm
    * Saturday, October 31, 7:30 pm
    * Sunday, November 1, 2:00 pm
    * Monday, November 2, 7:30 pm
    * Thursday, November 5, 7:30 pm
    * Saturday, November 7, 7:30 pm
    * Sunday, November 8, 2:00 pm

    Call for tickets 238-2720 or click here for online tickets. It is sure to be a thought-provoking, spectacular family treat. Dare to enter Dickens' delightful shadow world of London- perfect for a chilly fall night!

    Cover photo courtesy of CenterStage's facebook page; Second Photo: courtesy of John Leffert

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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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