It’s been a long wait for Dennis Assaf and Hannah Cunningham, but finally, after 37 years, their dream of a home venue for the arts organization they founded has come true.
Assaf, executive and artistic director of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, and Cunningham, a longtime arts patron who celebrated her 100th birthday earlier this year, co-founded JPAS in 1978. From the start, their objective has been to establish a first-rate performing arts facility in Jefferson Parish, and the new center they envisioned officially opens this weekend with a performance of “My Fair Lady.”
The classic Lerner and Loewe musical about a Cockney flower seller who is transformed into a lady by the always-grammatically-correct Professor Henry Higgins will run on successive weekends from Sept. 25 through Oct. 4. Show times are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays.
Micah Richerand Desonier stars in the title role as Eliza Doolittle. Kris Shaw is Professor Higgins and Louis Dudoussat is Col. Pickering. Clayton Phillips is the director and Kristin Blatchford is the scenic designer. Donna Clavijo is the musical director.
The Jefferson Performing Arts Center, on Airline Drive in Metairie, adjacent to Zephyr Field, seats up to 1,047 patrons on its three levels. It is operated by SMG, the same company that runs the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and Tulane University’s Yulman Stadium.
JPAS has been designated the new facility’s primary tenant and they will be staging seven musical, opera and dance productions during their 2015-16 season. Other non-JPAS shows will also be staged there at various times.
“It really feels good to be getting in there after all these years,” Assaf commented. “There isn’t a bad seat in the house and we’ve been very encouraged by the ticket sales for our productions and the support we are getting. I think it’s going to be a very exciting artistic venture in that building.”
Moving into the new facility after many years of performing in the auditorium of East Jefferson High School will enable JPAS to mount more elaborate and innovative shows, Assaf explained. The company will now be able to offer grand operas and large-scale musicals with full-sized sets — a daunting task in the smaller confines of the EJHS auditorium.
“My Fair Lady,” Assaf said, will feature a 35-piece orchestra that he will conduct from a height-adjustable pit in front of the stage. On Oct. 23 and 25 he will be conducting 42 musicians from the JPAS Symphony Orchestra in a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s grand opera, “Rigoletto.”
“The acoustics are very good and I’m very hopeful for what it’s going to sound like with live musicals and opera,” Assaf said. “I’m putting huge orchestras in all these shows. I’m not going the typical Broadway route where you have a bunch of synthesizers and percussion. This is going to be the real thing.”
In addition, there will be some special effects in the new house that weren’t possible in their previous home, Assaf added, most notably the ability to suspend actors and objects well above the floor.
For the Tchaikovsky “Nutcracker” performances (Dec. 19 and 20), professionally attached rigging will have a sleigh flying in, accompanied by two angels.
For “Mary Poppins” (March 11-20), the title character will actually be “flying” between the stage and the balcony, Assaf noted.
Other JPAS shows scheduled for the 2015-16 Season at the JPAC are “Sister Act” (Dec. 4-13), “The Light in the Piazza” (Jan. 22-31) and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream Ballet” (May 14-15). JPAS will also stage its major fundraiser, “Pasta and Puccini,” at the new center on Oct. 16.
In addition, JPAS has a full season of shows slated for its West Bank venue, Teatro Wego, in Westwego.
Desonier, who starred as Maria in the 2011 JPAS production of “The Sound of Music” and in other shows for the company, termed it “a wonderful honor” to be holding down the lead role in the first-ever production in the new facility.
“I feel like this is such a privilege just to get to perform in that beautiful theater. It’s the big production JPAS has been waiting so long for and I’m happy and proud that I get to be a part of it.”