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By JUSTINE DaCOST
SENTINEL CORRESPONDENT

Are you a theater lover who can’t make it to Broadway this summer? Cabrillo Stage has two reasons that might make Aptos a little more appealing than the Big Apple.

The first is "Little Shop of Horrors," which kicks off tonight at Cabrillo College. The classic black comedy, directed by Dustin Leonard, will run through July 22 at the Erica Schilling Forum. The second reason is the Cole Porter classic "Kiss Me Kate," which was inspired by Shakespeare’s "Taming of the Shrew." Directed by Janie Scott, the curtains at the Cabrillo Mainstage open July 20; the show runs through Aug. 19.

This year marks the first in several that the company will produce two shows. For Jon Nordgren, producing artistic director, the two-show season is a way to test the waters for future productions. A new Cabrillo theater, which will hold more than 500 people, is in the works, and is slated to be open for business by fall of next year.

"That’s the big challenge this year — trying to get the company geared toward this move," he said.

Nordgren, a musician who performed with the Cabrillo Stage orchestra for several years, said he’s proud to be part of the only professional musical theater in Santa Cruz County.

"It’s really a chance for people in Santa Cruz County to see a Broadway show here in their backyard," he said.

Nordgren, the director of bands at Cabrillo College, said the productions are also an opportunity for Cabrillo students, who intern during the shows, to work directly with professionals from the field.

THE THEATER BUG

One of those professionals is Charlie Smith, a set designer for “Kiss Me Kate.” The 25-year-old Santa Cruz native has been working on and off Broadway as a set designer for the past several years, and was part of the team behind the Tony award-winning musical “The Drowsy Chaperone”

Smith joined Cabrillo Stage as a teenager, then went on to study theater at NYU. He took off two years to study architecture in Italy, and was inevitably drawn back to theater.

“I couldn’t shake the theater bug,” he said.

Cabrillo Stage is still filled with many of Smith’s friends, and he said each production feels like a homecoming.

“I’ve always had a connection to the company,” he said. “It’s just kind of nice to go back and hang out with friends for a few weeks.”

While designing the set for “Kiss Me Kate” has had its moments of stress, he’s happy to be working with the community-based company.

“It’s certainly not as difficult and demoralizing as working on a Broadway show,” he said. “Everyone is at (Cabrillo Stage) because they want to be there and they enjoy the other people working with them and they enjoy where they are.”

Smith said he’s bringing a little of his own taste to “Kiss Me Kate,” which is set in Baltimore in the late 1940s. One way he achieved this was by giving a 2007 spin to the color choices and graphics.

“What I really wanted to do was take that 1940s scenery and give it a little more pizzazz,” he said.

He said the trick with the show was developing the two separate worlds the show is about — a cheesy 1940s musical and the rundown touring company that’s performing it.

“You have to have the gritty reality of the backstage theater,” he said.

This is one of his favorite shows, and while he’s worked on it before, he thinks the audience will be pleasantly surprised.

“I think that what we’re doing will be kind of fresh and fun,” he said.

‘KATE’ REVAMPED

The company will be using the revival version of “Kiss Me Kate,” which was developed in the late 1990s. The new version revamped the score, staging and dialogue to make it move more quickly, bringing it up to a more modern pace, said director and choreographer Janie Scott.

“The show moves like shows normally don’t move,” she said. “This is stunning.”

Scott, a music and dance instructor at San Jose State University, has been involved in Cabrillo Stage for several years, and has directed and choreographed shows such as “Guys and Dolls” and “Peter Pan,” in which she also played the role of Peter.

She said that while choreographing and directing can leave little free time, it allows her to merge her overall concepts.

“I’m pushing rehearsals pretty fast,” she said. “I could use a couple clones.”

In casting the show, she looked for people who naturally fit the characters. With only six weeks of rehearsals, she said she draws from the performers and has found that the talented cast can actually bring her visions to life.

“I’m very specific about what I want,” she said. “It’s all very connected to me.”

While the cast can’t touch the script or the score, they can develop their own choreography and set designs.

“That’s where we start to tweak it and make it our own,” she said.

Scott performed in Broadway shows and national tours, and said Cabrillo Stage gives Broadway a run for its money.

“I get to come and have all of these wonderful production values and an incredible high-caliber cast,” she said. “That, to me, makes the whole thing exciting to see and to hear and to experience.”

‘SHOP’ TALK

Dustin Leonard, director of “Little Shop of Horrors,” is a freelance director and actor who travels throughout the U.S. for performances.

Leonard said the show incorporates the classic B-movie set, but that he wanted to peel back the layers by using certain lighting, scenery and costumes.

“Visually, we are approaching the show in a very unique way,” he said.

He said one of the biggest challenges was figuring how to incorporate the plant, Audrey II, which grows to be 9-feet-tall. Actor Yahel Townsend plays the role of the carnivorous plant, while the voice is provided by local blues singer Jennifer Taylor Daniels.

“I’ve never worked with Jim Henson, so it’s certainly a challenge to work with this inanimate object and make it come to life,” Leonard said.

He was careful in casting the show because he wanted the actors to organically fit the characters they’re playing.

“We were looking for people who naturally were what we wanted,” he said. “It’s really letting the actors do what they do best if they’re cast right.”

Leonard said he enjoys the challenge of approaching classics such as “Little Shop.”

“I always like to take pieces like that and dust it off and take a look at it outside the box,” he said.

BEING SEYMOUR

In “Little Shop of Horrors,” it’s easy for people to see the main character Seymour, a floral assistant who’s down on his luck, as a victim of circumstance, Leonard said. On the contrary, he sees him more as a man who’s made a choice, who took the leap, to kill people. Leonard wanted to develop the show in a darker way that exposed human qualities.

“That in itself gives it a different layer,” he said.

In his third production with Cabrillo Stage, Andrew Ceglio, 25, plays the lead role of Seymour.

He said Leonard is supportive of the collaborative effort, and allows actors to find the characters by pulling from their own experiences.

“He’s every performers dream, in my opinion,” he said. “He kind of gives you a nudge in the right direction.”

He played Seymour in a high school production, and said he’s been able to put more into the character this time around.

“I always find it quite an honor and quite a challenge to (revisit) a character,” he said.

He said Leonard emphasizes human elements, such as a character’s quirks, and that the audience will be able to relate to the characters.

“He’s really been striving to get across the human qualities,” he said.

Ceglio worked with director Scott at San Jose State, and said that he’s anxious to work as much as he can to gain more experience.

“I consider my training to be ongoing and everlasting,” he said.

Nordgren hopes to one day have four shows a year — one in the winter and three in the summer. For now, he’s looking forward to sharing two very different shows with the community — the dark and intimate “Little Shop of Horrors,” and the Shakespeareinspired “Kiss Me Kate.”

“‘Kiss Me Kate’ is our champagne and caviar show,” he said. “‘Little Shop’ is our Coors and hot dog show.”

Contact Justine DaCosta at justine.dacosta@gmail.com.