When it comes to musical theater with a huge vocal presence, if you’re calling in Michael LaFleur, you must mean business.
The out, live-show theater specialist behind razzle-dazzling large-scale showcases for Disney and Universal theme parks, as well as individual shows for Celine Dion and Sarah Brightman, knows how to transform something intimate into something with wide-scale appeal. He also understands the intricacies of dealing with divas.
So, when Franke Previte (Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning songwriter behind “Dirty Dancing”), Dennis D’Amico (producer for superstars such as Paul McCartney) and musical director Henry Aronson (“On Your Feet,” “Rock of Ages”) contacted LaFleur for “Calling All Divas” — an original concert musical that’s debuting locally this weekend — all the puzzle’s pieces fit.
“Dennis called me out of the blue, after several years of them working the project and getting to the point where they needed a theatrical director,” LaFleur said during a brief break from rehearsals. “They needed someone to finesse and fine-tune, take what was Franke’s great ideas about a man looking for the next superstar, and make it into a script.”
LaFleur was intrigued by the process, as work on “Calling All Divas” asked for a hybrid treatment — something that wasn’t a Broadway-style musical, but more like a concert that Previte and the other producers wanted to inject with tales of the female singers’ lives.
“And we had one week to do all this,” LaFleur said about the workshop/rehearsal process that usually takes years of wood-shedding, trimming and honing to perfection. “I glued myself to a computer day and night for that one week, hashing out ideas.”
Sure, he worried about the lack of time, but LaFleur — a consummate pro who grew up on the stage — is always prepared.
“I couldn’t pay for the experience I got just being there, and of the theater, since I was a kid.”
As a result, LaFleur said, little daunts him.
“You learn a whole lot of gimmicks and short cuts along the way, and sometimes you just shake them together in a martini glass and pour them all out. The good news is, with ‘Calling All Divas,’ it’s working really well.”
The new show — often with its performers faced toward the audience in autobiographical directness — allows its stars to highlight some of their own stories. Broadway performer and Radio City Rockette Lisa Sherman, R&B background vocalist Carol Riddick (featured on records with Jill Scott and Will Downing), Nashville chanteuse Trenna Barnes (vocalist for “Cowboy Crush” and the Broadway musical “Ring of Fire”) and 19-year-old newcomer Brittneyann Accetta (a busking subway singer) reached into their own souls and pasts.
“We had so little time, so I had to think of ingenious ways into the script,” LeFleur said. “One day, I heard someone talking about how Lisa always makes and brings food for the entire cast. Suddenly, I thought that would make a great scene. Same with Brittneyann, who busks for her supper. These little parts of their personality, for me, made for great dialogue, great background as to who the characters were — because it is who they are in real life.”
Conversely, with Dion and Brightman, LaFleur framed and pulled together disparate elements of their personal characteristics and visions.
“Like when Brightman sang those numbers from ‘Harem,’ I came up with video images of undulating torsos and moving hands behind her,” he said. “For Disney parks, they have given me a theme, shown me a large tract of land or an area, and tell me to come up with something. I sit down and write, and we do it. I’m doing much the same things with ‘Calling All Divas,’ but with a much smaller, tighter time frame. But that’s showbiz.
“We’re following this one young man meeting each of these women as they compete to be ‘the next big thing,’” LaFleur added. “What we find out ultimately is that they are stronger together. That’s a great and universal concept, whether you’ve work-shopped it for three years or come up with it within a week.” n
“Calling All Divas” premieres Saturday, March 2, at the Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside. For information or tickets, call 215-572-7650 or visit https://www.keswicktheatre.com/.