Like everything else about the long-delayed, far-over-budget Jefferson Performing Arts Center, figuring out which productions to stage once the building opens has been a rocky process.
But the center’s resident troupe now knows it will kick off its inaugural season at its new $54.5 million home in September. It has a nearly completed lineup of shows the troupe’s leader is willing to discuss publicly. And firm audition dates for roles in those shows have been set.
“The future is just incredibly bright,” Dennis Assaf, artistic and executive director of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, said recently. “We can now truly go to work — for the first time in (the) effort to get this building built.”
Assaf said his nonprofit group will mark the beginning of its tenancy in the new arts center between Zephyr Field and LaSalle Park on Airline Drive in Metairie with a production of the Lerner and Loewe musical “My Fair Lady.”
That will be followed over the next few months by Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto,” the classic Christmas ballet “The Nutcracker” and the musical “The Light in the Piazza,” Assaf said.
The musical “Mary Poppins” will headline the spring portion of the lineup.
Assaf said initial auditions for the productions will be held July 10-12.
He anticipates releasing more information about shows, tickets and run dates for the new theater soon.
While waiting for the new building to open, the arts society has been staging productions at a community theater in Westwego and at East Jefferson High School’s auditorium in Metairie when not touring.
On June 20, a day after residents will be allowed to tour the new theater for free, the society’s orchestra will participate in a gala concert celebrating the formal opening of the facility, an event that will also feature renowned jazz musician Branford Marsalis.
Assaf’s organization, though, won’t begin its run at the arts center until a couple of months later.
It was not easy for Assaf to reach the point where he felt comfortable talking about what would be his troupe’s first slate of shows at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, which has taken most of two decades to build.
As officials announced the 1,050-seat theater was close to substantial completion in October, Assaf paid $10,000 to license the rights to stage the musical “Les Miserables.” He held auditions and planned to put the show on in the spring, intending it to be his group’s first performance in its new home.
Yet the spring came, and the arts center remained unopened. Assaf never cast “Les Miserables” and was forced to cancel his plans to perform it.
Anyone who obtained the rights to “Les Miserables” had to stage it by June 30, mainly because it is being revived on Broadway, said a representative of Music Theatre International, which licensed the musical. Assaf simply ran out of time to meet the deadline, he said.
However, that didn’t turn out to be the disaster it might have been. Though the group had to pay a penalty of about $600 for canceling the show, Music Theatre International let the Jefferson society apply most of the $10,000 it spent on “Les Miserables” toward the rights for “Mary Poppins.”
“It was really no big loss,” Assaf said. It was just frustrating, which has been a sentiment shared by many involved in the center’s development.
Assaf, 65, said his quest for a top-level performing arts theater began in 1978, the same year he co-founded the arts society.
That theater didn’t appear in official parish plans until 1997. It wasn’t until nine years later that officials selected a contractor to build the 86,000-square-foot facility. It was supposed to be finished by 2009 at an estimated cost of $26.6 million — less than half the eventual price tag.
Despite its late arrival and bloated cost, Assaf promised the arts center will be a welcome addition to Jefferson Parish, saying that technically it can do anything that New Orleans’ prestigious Saenger and Mahalia Jackson theaters can.
“We are now a complete community,” Assaf said. “Now, we have a palace from which fine art can be displayed.”