“What’s the password?” No, I wasn’t buying a new iPhone app. I was seeking entry into the Kit Kat Club, a secret speakeasy just around the corner from my house. There are no signs. And a dapper but slightly thuggish bouncer asked me for the password before I was allowed in.
While it isn’t a real speakeasy, it sure feels like one. Because from the minute you approach “Chicabarent,” a cabaret-style mash-up of the musicals “Chicago,” “Cabaret” and “Rent,” you’re stepping into what Creating Arts Collective Artistic Director Shannon Sukovaty calls a “flexible, fourth-wall, totally immersive theatrical experience.”
CAC Studios is home to a theater collective that puts on musical shows for children and adults, performed by Broadway-caliber professional singers/dancers/actors who throw improvisational skills into the mix, engaging the audience in character from the get-go as well as during the show.
The building at 3110 Pennsylvania Ave., in Santa Monica was once the site of a proposed marijuana testing laboratory that couldn’t get a business permit. Sukovaty’s husband, Todd Skinner, bought the building, and they’ve converted it into a production house, recording studio and artistic space rental company.
Creating Arts Collective is the crew of professionals behind the children’s and adult live theatre productions that take place within its walls and beyond. The company is celebrating its third anniversary this month.
Till now, says Sukovaty, “We’d been doing our children’s shows at Santa Monica venues like the Promenade Playhouse, Highways, and Miles Playhouse.” Now with their own space they’ve expanded into productions for adults.
Children’s productions have included versions of Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and The Little Mermaid. The company has evolved a successful formula for creating original works, with fresh storylines and scripts wrapped around songs from the musicals.
In addition to acting in films and commercials, Sukovaty has taught after-school programs so she knows that audience. “The goal with the kids’ shows is to engage them from the moment they walk in. Unlike walking into a traditional theatre setting, in Alice in Wonderland, they fall down the rabbit hole and they’re meeting the characters themselves.”
When she saw parents enjoying the experience as much as the kids did, a light went off and she began thinking about an adult production.
Having performed at various times during her career in “Chicago,” “Cabaret” and “Rent,” Sukovaty also happens to be a published writer. “So I thought a mash-up would be fun, and the process was my crazy brain going gosh, it would be so cool if all three plays were in some kind of whirlwind vortex of a play, with no specific time or date, but sharing the commonality of the bohemian life style. That’s where I started and found a story line in this common thread, then I pulled in all the characters.”
In “Chicabarent” there are 21 characters and they occupy every square inch of the theater’s small space, climbing on the walls, the bar, the chairs, and performing Busby Berkeley-style choreography on a floor space that’s barely six feet square.
The other production “Th√©nardier’s Inn” pays homage to, and pokes fun at, Les Mis√©rables. “My whole crew wanted to do Les Miz,” Sukovaty told me, “but it’s just such a huge production.”
Instead, creative team member Nicholas Rubando (who plays Angel in Chicabarent) wrote a script with a storytelling focus. Rather than attempt to restage the musical, this show is set in a rundown inn in Paris, whose Master of the House recounts the elements of the story unfolding beyond his doors.
Performed by 16 actors, “Th√©nardier’s Inn” focuses on key figures Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine and Cosette. The signature songs are sung, frustrated romance abounds, and with revolution and justice-versus-fairness in the air, it makes for a bawdy and entertaining evening.
The company is catching up with the success of the adult shows, both of which have been extended twice or more, far exceeding expectations. They’re self-funded by selling tickets and performing private shows, and after paying actors and staff, plowing the money back into the company’s operations.
Sukovaty still sounds surprised when she says, “We now have a patron list of 8,000 people and we started with only two people in the audience at our first show. Our bankers are kind of blown away by us, we’re at that borderline where we’re looking into getting funding to grow it to the next level and take some of our shows on tour.”
Three Clubs in Hollywood has invited CAC to present “Th√©nardier’s Inn” in June during the Hollywood Fringe Festival. And last weekend, they brought their “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to the Miramar Marine Corps base.
Sukovaty says CAC’s works in progress include “Project Mayhem: The Unauthorized Fight Club Musical,” and “The Rocky Hedwig Experiment,” mashing “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Hedwig’s Angry Inch” — “so basically the space is going to be turned into an insane asylum”
You don’t need to know the musicals to enjoy these shows. “We get a lot of men on dates,” Sukovaty says, “who at the end of the show come up and say, I’ really didn’t want to come to this, but I have to tell you it was fun and I would come again.’ If the audience is having fun, being exposed to amazing music and learning to like it in a different way, then I think we’ve done our job.”
“Th√©nardier’s Inn” runs through April 30; beginning May 2, get tickets on the website to see it at Three Clubs on Vine Street during the Hollywood Fringe Festival in June. And “Chicabarent” runs through May 16 in Santa Monica. Visit www.cacstudios.com for tickets and info.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also reviewed theater for LAOpeningNights.com.