MOMENTS IN THE WOODS

In a town that has seen its share of failed theatrical companies – let’s start with the ill-fated Lobero Theatre Company a decade ago, and the closing of the Civic Light Opera a few years back – it’s heartening to hear about a new homegrown musical theater venture that’s proving successful, and a new deal at the still under reconstruction Granada that promises to bring top-notch touring shows back to Santa Barbara.

Y-NOT Student Productions is the brainchild of Travis Elconin, a 22-year-old college student who started his own musical production company because he wanted to do a show last summer, and nothing was available.

“There really wasn’t any options for students in the summer in Santa Barbara unless you went to Santa Barbara City College or paid to be involved in a camp,” Elconin says. “So I figured I’d start something myself just to get it done. We wanted to provide a venue for college-age students to perform musical theater in a semi-professional way.”

So last year, Elconin gathered a group of friends, found a few musicians through the local colleges, tapped his dad, Don, for some organizational and promotional advice, found an adult with some experience to direct, and mounted a three-night run of “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown” at the Marjorie Luke Theatre. Elconin cast himself in the title role.

“It was a great first show,” he recalls. “We had a small cast, just six actors, a limited set and a small orchestra – very low-scale. But it was a rousing success.”

Indeed. More than 800 people came out over the course of the three nights, and Y-NOT raised thousands for the Breast Resource Center, which was its non-profit partner for 2005.

But Elconin wasn’t satisfied with just a solitary, single year success. He had a few new goals for 2006, including expanding the size and scope of the show, and making it truly student run.

“I can see this becoming an annual thing,” he said. “I learned so much last year that I knew we could go bigger and pull it off.”

So the new production is the much more complicated “Into the Woods,” which boasts a cast of 19, a much large orchestra, far more complex music, intricate scenery, and copious costumes. Students, either those who attend area colleges or who are home for the summer vacation, comprise the entire staff, from the director, producer and publicity staff (Don still helps a little here), to the entire cast and orchestra.

Elconin himself has a far smaller onstage role because his task behind the scenes has grown enormously.

“I’m the executive producer, overseeing all the different aspects, so I don’t have the time to play a big part,” he says. “But this is much more rewarding.”

Elconin isn’t sure about his long-range career goals or where theater fits in the future. But he’s clear about the value of what he’s learned, and knows he’ll be back for at least two more years.

“I’m twenty-two and our age range is sixteen to twenty-four, so I have two more years on stage,” he says. “After that, I’m planning on staying on as executive producer, with an eye toward setting up a system where a student who wants to direct a show could apply with us, provide all the details. And I’d be able to select among them, choose one to work with and make it happen, give someone else coming up that experience I’ve been fortunate to have. And I now have such amazing skills that I can apply to whatever I choose to do later in life.”

(“Into the Woods” plays August 9-12 at the Marjorie Luke Theatre. For tickets, call 895-1769.)

Finishing Touches

If “Into the Woods” isn’t your thing, well how would you like to see such current Broadway fare as “Mamma Mia,” “Hairspray” and “Movin’ Out?”

That’s the plan behind an agreement signed last week between the Granada and Theater League, Inc., one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit musical theater presenters. The partnership, inked last week when the principals were all in town, will develop an annual series of Broadway musicals at the facility, with a start date as soon as fall 2007.

Theater League founder and president Mark Edelman was joined by Tony Award-winning producer Steve Traxler, of Jam Theatricals, and Adam Epstein, of Theater Council Productions – the latter of which has been a longtime producer of touring productions in Santa Barbara (the current “Broadway at the Arlington” series). Together they were touting the new agreement alongside Granada executive director Peter Frisch in front of the theatre.

The Granada is currently in the last 15-month phase of a massive overhaul that will create a state-of-the-art performing arts center in the heart of town.

“The Granada will finally provide this community with the kind of technical stage requirements that have not previously been available here,” Edelman says. “That meant there were lots of shows that couldn’t play here. Even as beautiful as the Arlington is, the backstage is difficult to negotiate, and the facilities just aren’t up to today’s standards.”

The Granada, at a planned 1,600 seats, will also be a perfect fit for musicals, Edelman says.

“It’s more appropriately sized for a Broadway theatre,” he explains. “In fact, it is the size of a Broadway theatre. So you’ll be getting the same experience here you get in New York.”

“It will allow us to bring the kinds of shows we just couldn’t do across the street,” adds Epstein, pointing to the Arlington. “This gives us the option for first-run shows, brings the whole market back into play for us.”

Asked why he thinks the new venture will succeed where the Civic Light Opera foundered, and not far from where “Broadway at the Arlington” has largely presented second-tier shows, Edelman pointed to the different business model of a not-for-profit venture and added:

”I’m not sure that it isn’t all about the venue. People want to get excited about a theatre, and this is one that they can really get behind, because from everything I’ve seen, it’s going to be top-notch. Everything will all be there. It’s built for what we’re doing.”

That includes a stage that is more than 50% deeper than the Arlington, with ample wing space and dressing areas, some of which were changed to fit new specifications after the renovation plan was already underway.

“We started out with less but decided to expand the scope because the board and I wanted to do it right the first time,” Frisch says. “The Granada will be here for another hundred years. We want this to be a proper facility because right now, there are compromises everywhere else. This was designed specifically so that no company who wanted to play here would say no because of technical requirements.”

So you can expect to see such shows as “Spamalot,” which won Epstein’s company a Tony Award, and “The Color Purple” right here in Santa Barbara just as soon as they begin touring the country.

Meanwhile, Frisch reported that the Granada has raised 73% of the $50-million cost of renovation, and he expects to be able to finish on time within the next 15 months, when the Santa Barbara Symphony and other arts organizations are due to begin presenting at the theatre.

“I couldn’t be happier with the way the whole presenting situation has worked out,” Frisch says.