Louisville’s Jewish Community Theatre Celebrates 100th Season

CenterStage, the resident theatre company of Louisville’s Jewish Community Center, launches its 100th season this summer. 

CenterStage is the oldest continuously-operated theatre company in Kentucky – they staged their first production, a revue called ” Behind the Scenes,”  in 1913 as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Players at the old YMHA downtown. The company has operated continuously under the umbrella of the JCC since. Known by different names over the decades, artistic director John Leffert came on board in 2000 and helped re-brand the company into CenterStage. Now, the company focuses mainly on musicals, with the occasional play mixed in. 

“Jewish culture is typically very supportive of the arts,” says Leffert. “The Center has always provided arts not only for the Jewish community, but at the community at large. They have [an art] gallery and they had an orchestra. I think it’s just an important part of the Jewish culture.”  

CenterStage opens its milestone season this summer with “Chicago” (June 26-July 13), and closes next March with the classic musical about Jewish tradition and modernity, “Fiddler on the Roof” (March 12-29, 2015), which will coincide with the JCC’s own 125th anniversary. 

“We’ve had huge success with ‘Fiddler,’ and it’s some people’s favorite show,” says Leffert. “It’s a classic, and a brilliant story no matter when you do it.” 

In between, the company will produce the eight-time Tony Award-winner “Spring Awakening” (August 7-17), Stephen Sondheim’s creepy classic “Sweeney Todd” (Oct. 23-Nov. 9), Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (Jan. 8-25, 2015) and the Caribbean folk tale musical “Once On This Island” (Feb. 12-23, 2015). 

Audiences can preview some of the season during this year’s Derby Week Pegasus Parade,when the  CenterStage float feature a performance from “Beauty and the Beast.” 

Leffert says plays for the season were selected in part for their suitability for additional community programming, like “Spring Awakening,” which Leffert says is the company’s serious “issues-related” show, like this year’s cancer drama “Wit” or last season’s “Next to Normal,” a musical about a family dealing with mental illness.

“With ‘Spring Awakening,’ we’re going to do a program called ‘#TeenAwakening.’ You know, the issues in that show are pretty tough for teens, teen suicide and teen pregnancy and that kind of thing, so we’re going to have a live Twitter feed and a talk-back after the show for teens and their parents,” says Leffert.

But some plays are chosen simply because it’s time. The company has considered “Sweeney Todd” for years, and the upcoming production of the musical about a serial killing barber and the partner who cooks his victims into meat pies will include a mix of elements from the original Broadway staging and the 2006 revival. 

“It’s actually on my bucket list to direct,” says Leffert. “That list is diminishing, but that’s definitely one we’ve talked about every year.”

“It is a dark story,” Leffert adds with a laugh. “But that’s why we have ‘Beauty and the Beast’ after.” 

A look at the CenterStage 100th Anniversary Season: 

“Chicago,” June 26-July 13. Set in the Windy City during the Roaring Twenties, the musical tells the story of two rival vaudevillian performers imprisoned for murder.

“Spring Awakening,” winner of eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, is a rock musical adaptation of an 1891 expressionist play about the trials, tribulations and exhilaration of the teen years. It runs Aug. 7-17

“Sweeney Todd” plays Oct. 23-Nov. 9. It’s a musical thriller about a vengeful 19th century London barber who goes on a murderous rampage and the baker who cooks his victims into pies.

Disney’s classic love story “Beauty and the Beast” runs Jan. 8-Jan. 25. A pre-matinee children’s tea with the characters will be offered.

“Once on This Island,” a musical fable, tells the story of forbidden love between people from two different worlds. During its Feb. 12-23 run, CenterStage invites the public to learn more about the craft of storytelling at a special event with a practitioner of the art.

The season finale celebrates the company’s cultural roots with the classic “Fiddler on the Roof,” March 12-29. Tevye, the father of five daughters, tries to balance Jewish tradition with the modern world and its ever-changing political and social landscape. The production dovetails with the JCC of Louisville’s 125th anniversary and a joint celebration will mark the occasion. 

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