Composer/baker Joe Ortiz's latest work, "Circus: Knives, Blood & Water," debuts this weekend at Cabrillo Stage.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

‘Circus’ act: Capitola’s baker/composer returns to Cabrillo Stage with his latest pop opera

Local playwright/composer Joe Ortiz highlights Cabrillo Stage’s new summer season with his latest musical, “Circus: Knives, Blood & Water.” Longtime collaborator Greg Fritsch says, “It’s about the terrible cost of secrets and lies, and the power of truth and forgiveness.”

If Capitola were New York City, Joe Ortiz would likely be on Times Square billboards as that rarest kind of celebrity, the hybrid artist — in his case a mashup of Paul Hollywood and Stephen Sondheim. He would be an inspiration to that small subset of people committed to following two unrelated passions.

As it stands, Ortiz is living his best life in Capitola, where he is the master baker and co-owner, with his wife, of the beloved bakery Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria, and an accomplished stage composer with a long career of his work produced on local stages.

Ortiz’s hot hand continues this weekend as Cabrillo Stage debuts his latest work, “Circus: Knives, Blood & Water.” The production will run for five performances — three evening shows and two matinees — Friday through Sunday. (Two of the performances are also available for at-home streaming.)

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Ortiz has been down this road before with his past musical creations including the cabaret show “Smoke,” his autobiographical musical “Escaping Queens,” and that moment when his two worlds collided, “Bread! The Musical.”

After “Escaping Queens,” “Circus” is the second collaboration between Ortiz and the artists of Cabrillo Stage, the professional summer-stock theater company which has produced big and ambitious musical productions at Cabrillo College going back generations.

“Circus” — a “sung-through” musical with almost no between-songs dialogue — is a beguiling story set against the backdrop of Coney Island in the 1960s. A young trapeze artist is mysteriously invited to join an eccentric small circus, presided over by a charismatic knife thrower. But she has second thoughts when she witnesses the lurid performance of the circus’ carnival barker.

Joe Ortiz (left) and longtime collaborator Greg Fritsch (right) at Cabrillo's outdoor amphitheater.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Basically, it’s a pop opera,” said Greg Fritsch, the production’s director, who has been collaborating with Ortiz for close to 20 years. “It’s about the terrible cost of secrets and lies, and the power of truth and forgiveness.”

It is Ortiz’s habit to write his staged musicals backward from the way it’s usually done. At heart, he’s a songwriter. He writes his songs, gets them just as he likes them, then, with Fritsch at his side, he stitches them into a story arc.

“I’ve asked my collaborators to tolerate my method,” said Ortiz, “and they’ve come up with interesting answers.”

“A lot of these songs just came out of his trunk,” said Fritsch, “and likely he had no idea what they meant to anybody else. But they were great songs.”

Ortiz said he started with an image: A woman in a bathrobe ironing the costume she is to wear on stage in a circus. She is the knife thrower’s wife. She’s singing a song: It’s the tenderness I miss/feigning pride and feeling bliss/Yet I crave the danger of each throw.

“Then she takes off her bathrobe to put her costume on,” said Ortiz, “and we realize that she has cuts all up and down her arms.”

Aimee Puentes plays the role of the knife thrower's wife in "Circus."
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

To adapt to pandemic protocol, Cabrillo Stage is performing this summer in the outdoor amphitheater on the campus of Cabrillo College. “Circus” is to be followed later this summer by productions of the Tom Lehrer-inspired musical “Tomfoolery” and the Gilbert and Sullivan classic “Pirates of Penzance.”

The “Circus” production also is a showcase for yet a third creative passion of Ortiz. The set design is making use of several large-scale paintings by Ortiz, who counts visual art among his pastimes as well. Along with Fritsch, the play will feature the work of longtime Cabrillo Stage set designer Skip Epperson, costumer Maria Crush and musical director Jonathan Dryden. It stars Brennah Kemmerly, David Jackson, Andrew Ceglio and Aimee Puentes.

Fritsch said that Ortiz’s greatest strength is his eclecticism. “This play displays just an incredible variety of music,” he said. “There’s rock ‘n’ roll called ‘Rollercoaster.’ There’s ’40s jazz, beautiful ballads, soulful heart-wrenching blues and jazz solos and duets, and what borders on modern opera.”

For his part, Ortiz is quick to give Fritsch an enormous role in bringing his vision to life. “He’s really spoiled me,” he said of his writing partner. “You know, I never like to put dynamics into a song, because I know Greg will say, ‘Oh, we want to amp up the angst here’ and ‘Let’s make it darker here,’ or speed this up or slow that down. That really helps me.”

For ticket information for both in-person performances and streaming options of ‘Circus: Knives, Blood & Water,’ go to Cabrillo Stage’s website.

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