With a name like Diane Lala, she was apparently destined for a career in musical theater. I’ve often wondered if she made up the name to add cachet to her career.
So I asked.
“It really is my last name,” she says. That day she was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words, “Ooh La La!”
“My dad was actually a Jazz trumpet player in New Orleans,” Lala says, referencing her hometown. “My mom put me in dance class when I was 4, and I didn’t want to go back the next year. It almost broke her heart, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll go.’ ”
By the time Lala was 12 or 13, her dance teacher asked her to help teach younger students.
“That’s what took me over the edge,” she says. “I became fascinated with it. I badgered my mom: ‘Drive me to this class. Drive me to that studio.’ ”
She’s now a veteran choreographer who’s worked at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music since 1989. Her first show there was A Chorus Line, for which she was guest choreographer.
“I sent a video and my résumé, but no picture. They were a little shocked when I got off the plane,” she recalls. She was 23.
But her colleagues at CCM, including Aubrey Berg, who heads the school’s renowned program in musical theater, were pleased with the result. She was invited back to choreograph a production of Hair the same year, and then offered a position on the faculty.
She never thought this would be her life’s work.
“I figured I would do it for three years, then go back to what I wanted to do — the New York thing and all that,” she says. “But all of a sudden, I saw these students improving and I kind of had to stay to know what was going to happen to them. I’ve been here ever since.”
It was a tad like her mom pushing her into dance class: She didn’t realize how much she loved it until she did it for a while.
The evidence of her success is currently onstage at CCM’s Patricia Corbett Theater, where she has staged and choreographed the 2007 musical Legally Blonde, based on the Reese Witherspoon film of the same name from 2001 about Elle, a young woman who overcomes being ditzy and succeeds at Harvard Law School. Performances continue through Nov. 2.
Lala resonates with this show because its central character is finding out who she is, not unlike her own life path and that of the students she works with in the classroom and shows. She knows that some people think this show is fluff, but she disagrees.
“Elle is judged by the way she looks. She has to find out and prove that she’s more than that, because how you look on the outside isn’t necessarily who you are on the inside,” Lala says. “There’s a lot of self-discovery in the show.”
Being the director and the choreographer is a lot of work, she points out, but she says it really works for Legally Blonde.
“Everything is integrated. There’s a lot of scenery that moves while dancing happens at the same time. It’s a little bit overwhelming sometimes, but it all fits together.”
In addition to her student cast and an elaborate set (she wanted it to look like the “Barbie Dreamhouse,” and that’s what’s onstage), she is working with two dogs that are integral to the story.
She never tires of working with CCM’s musical theater students.
“They grow so much over the four years,” she says. “It’s such a critical point in their lives as performers. They learn a lot about themselves. It’s a joy teaching them and seeing how hard they work every day to get better.”
Lala mentions her dance captain, Samantha Pollino, a junior she’s worked with for two years.
“She has a style of movement that uses a little bit of Hip Hop. She plays Serena, the head Delta Nu, and she’s a really strong dancer,” she says. “She will eventually have a performing career. But she could go right into being a choreographer, too.”
Back in 2007 for the show’s Broadway debut, the role of Serena was originated by Leslie Kritzer, a 1999 CCM grad who’s well established today as a New York performer.
Pollino and others in the cast of Legally Blonde refer to Lala as “D-La,” an affectionate moniker for a teacher who’s readying them for professional careers. No matter what she’s called, she’s getting the job done.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]