Cabrillo Stage emerges post-pandemic with crowd-pleasing ‘Grease,’ ambitious ‘Candide’

Cabrillo Stage's Candide
Curt Denham (left) and Lori Shulman star in Cabrillo Stage’s “Candide,” the second show in its summer season, opening in July.
(Via Jana Marcus)

Santa Cruz County’s professional musical-theater troupe enthusiastically reoccupies the Crocker Theater for the first time in three years to present a big 2022 season.

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For more than 40 years now, musical-theater lovers in Santa Cruz County have enjoyed the kind of big, bold shows that you might think you’d encounter only in much larger communities. Cabrillo Stage, the summer-stock theater company that has delivered those shows, has labored to remind audiences that it is not simply an extension of the theater department at Cabrillo College — that it is in fact a professional undertaking, dependent on Cabrillo College for many things, most notably its home venue the Crocker Theater, but operating with professional standards and almost entirely dependent on local ticket sales for its budget.

It would not have been shocking had Cabrillo Stage become a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out its 2020 season and forced the company to perform a stripped-down season in a makeshift outdoor amphitheater in 2021.

But somehow, some way, Cabrillo Stage is back in 2022, back in the Crocker, its home for the past decade, and back presenting a season of full-scale musical productions with visiting professional actors and directors and familiar homegrown theater artists like scenic designer Skip Epperson, costumer Maria Crush and musical directors Cheryl Anderson and Jon Nordgren.

On June 24, Cabrillo Stage officially opens its new season with the beloved 1950s-style musical “Grease.” A month later, it opens its second show, “Candide,” Leonard Bernstein’s operetta based on the 260-year-old satirical novel by the French Enlightenment thinker Voltaire.

Nordgren, who has served as Cabrillo Stage’s artistic director for 15 years, said of “Candide,” “It’s my favorite musical, by far. Traditionally, ‘Candide’ doesn’t sell tickets, even though it is the biggest spectacle you’ll ever see. I mean, you go from city to city, you’re in the famous earthquake in Lisbon [from 1755], you got the Romanian army over there. It just goes from one crazy situation to another, but it’s super intellectual and very operatic.”

Haley Clarke (left) and Jack Bloome play Sandy and Danny, respectively, in Cabrillo Stage's "Grease"
Haley Clarke (left) and Jack Bloome play Sandy and Danny, respectively, in Cabrillo Stage’s new production of the beloved musical “Grease,” opening June 24.
(Via Jana Marcus)

What’s not usually tabbed “super intellectual” and does traditionally sell tickets is “Grease,” the 50-year-old crowd-pleaser that spawned one of Hollywood’s biggest movie musicals back in 1978. “Grease” is famously set back in the Eisenhower ’50s, but just as famously adapted for the disco ’70s in the movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as leads Danny and Sandy. Largely because it is a play adapted from one era in another era, Nordgren said, Cabrillo Stage’s “Grease” is again adapted, this time to align with the sensibilities of 2020s audiences.

Gone are the retro gender stereotypes and the wince-inducing cultural references. “Now, it’s a story about empowering Sandy,” Nordgren said. Also gone are the disco beats, replaced with a more true-to-the-era score of old-school R&B, with piano, bass, drums, two guitars and two tenor saxophones, harkening back to the doo-wop sound of the time with flavors of blues, gospel and early rock ’n’ roll a la Bo Diddley. Scene designer Epperson and technical director Marcel Tjioe are also bringing in an old car to serve as an on-stage element.

The cast for “Grease” will number more than 20, and for “Candide,” the cast is even larger. The seven-piece band in “Grease” translates to an orchestra in “Candide” twice as large. The setting, ambitions and scope of the two shows in the new season suggest that, post-pandemic, it’s 2019 all over again. But Cabrillo Stage will still be instituting strict controls to keep COVID-19 from disrupting the performances. Audiences, for example, will have to show proof of up-to-date vaccinations (or proof a negative test) and all attending will be required to wear a face mask throughout the performance. As for the performers, Nordgren said rehearsals so far have been masked, though live performances, obviously, will not be. Actors and musicians will, however, be taking regular COVID-19 tests before performances.

“We’ll adjust,” said Nordgren on both the requirements and what happens if one of his cast members is not available due to a positive test. “We’ve done it before.”

That show-must-go-on ethic also applies to Cabrillo Stage’s economic well-being. Nordgren said that most theater companies exist on a roughly 50/50 split between ticket sales and donations. Cabrillo Stage, by contrast, makes do on a 80/20 basis, with most of its income coming from ticket sales. That also means the company is not allowed to operate in the red.

Nordgren said that the 2019 season was a big success, which allowed him to program the risky “Candide” — his all-time favorite musical, remember — for 2020. Obviously, that didn’t happen. So with “Candide,” the new season is a carryover from 2019. Even with the pandemic disruption, Nordgren and his staff have kept in place high standards for performances, reflecting, he said, in his choice for director of “Candide,” choreographer/director Gary John La Rosa.

“This is the guy who staged the 50th anniversary show of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” said Nordgren. “He’s a Jerome Robbins expert. His partner runs Playbill. This guy’s the real thing.”

Cabrillo Stage is looking for its new season to get the company back on more stable footing following a two-year pandemic interruption, while promising audiences what they’ve come to expect from a professional company.

“We’ve tightened everything up, in terms of how everything works,” said Nordgren. “I picked a very simple show [‘Grease’] for the first show, so we can put a lot more into production values. That’s always been our goal and what has made us stand out. And I think [those standards] will be the highest [this season]. I’m crossing my fingers; I haven’t heard it without a mask on yet.”

“Grease” kicks off the Cabrillo Stage 2022 season with an opening performance June 24 (after a preview performance June 23) at the Crocker Theater on the campus of Cabrillo College. “Candide” is set to open July 22.