Hancock’s ‘La Casa Azul’ gets new look on Phoenix stage

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For Carmel resident Gregory Glade Hancock, art is constantly evolving.

So is his production of “La Casa Azul,” the story of the turbulent life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

“It’s a fusion of musical theater, dance and opera to make a new genre of musical,” said Hancock, founder of Carmel-based Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre.

The original version premiered in 2015.

“Since then I’ve been working with producers and directors in New York and across the country a little bit to help give me suggestions on refining and reshaping,” Hancock said. “The show has been re-written, re-shaped and restructured. It has some new songs, some missing songs, it’s a completely new presentation than it was in 2015.”

Hancock said the decision to stage at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre, a smaller venue in Indianapolis, was to create a more intimate, immersive atmosphere to really focus on the story and the characters. The 12 performances will be July 11 to 28.

“We did a grand, epic version the first time and it won a regional Emmy Award,” Hancock said of the performance at The Tarkington in Carmel. “We decided to do a scaled-down, more intimate version this time.”

Hancock said he wanted to make sure the lead characters are played by Latino actors.

J.L. Rey will play artist Diego Rivera, who was twice married to Kahlo.

“Like Frida, he is one of the most important artists of the 20th century,” Rey said. “It’s an amazing opportunity to tell this story of these two amazing artists and their unique love story.   It’s a story of two significant people in the world of art that in America a lot of people don’t know much about. They only know the Salma Hayek film (‘Frida’), which is fabulous. These two people are as important in the world of art as Keith Haring and Andy Warhol.”

Rey said he wanted to thank Hancock and board for their efforts to cast Latino actors.

“It’s great to play a great, flawed human character,” Rey said. “He was not a very faithful husband and he is flawed in many other ways as well, but he loves her and she loves him. The music is amazing.”

Rey learned about it through Val Nuccio, who portrays Kahlo. The two New York performers worked together in Minneapolis two years ago in a production of “In the Heights.”

“She told me she had been cast and they are still seeking a Diego and I think you would be perfect,” Rey said.

Rey started out as a singer, then became a singer-actor, then did fewer musicals.

“This was an opportunity to be in a musical again and I was dying to be in a musical,” he said. “There are not that many roles for men my age and who look like me in musical theater. You don’t see people like me in ‘The Music Man’ and “Hello Dolly.’”

Abbie Lessaris is reprising her role as Death.

“My part has evolved, but the integrity of it remains intact,” Lessaris said. “In this show, I dance almost solely by myself or with Frida. But she is not dancing, she is doing what is natural to her, singing, acting. Usually I’m relating to other dancers.”

Death was a preoccupation of Kahlo, Rey said.

“For the audience to have that experience of Frida’s preoccupation with her own mortality visually in dance is stunning,” Rey said.

Lessaris said her portrayal of Death is completely unspoken.

“Even though we don’t speak or sing with one another, you feel the intensity of that relationship between Frida and her mortality,” Lessaris said. “I’m constantly in her life. I’m perhaps the only constant in her life. I’m almost a maternal character towards Frida. I’m there when she has a miscarriage or with her in the hospital after the accident, when men are walking out of her life and her sister betrays her.’

The musical covers Kahlo’s life from age 12 to when she dies in 1954 at age 47.

“To do her whole life would be a mini-series. She was an epic human,” Rey said.

For more, visit gregoryhancockdancetheatre.org.

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