Not wanting to lose the Summer Rep program altogether, the Cabrillo College administration gave Lile Cruse, then Performing Arts Division Chair, the opportunity to recreate Summer Rep Theater. With Cruse's vision and leadership, a company with the aspirations of producing unparalleled musical theatre was set to produce one major stage musical each summer.
Taking the dual role of Executive Producer and Musical Director, Lile Cruse ambitiously selected the dance heavy Chicago for Cabrillo Stage's inaugural production in 1981. Chicago, a new musical at that time, was an ambitious undertaking for the new company. Cruse hired nationally renowned Belle Calloway to star in the production, who would later come to be a nationally recognized Broadway actress. Cabrillo Stage's breakaway production of Chicago was a hit with both the public and the reviewers. The production also set a standard for professional theatre that had not been seen before in the county, and marked the first show with paid actors, and the now renowned full pit orchestra.
In 1982 Cabrillo Stage installed a state of the art lighting system in the Cabrillo theatre. Equipped with new sound operating technology as well, Cabrillo Stage produced Hello Dolly, Mame, and Gypsy, the following seasons, sending Cabrillo Stage to the top of the list for summer theater events.
Now primed to become the Monterey Bay's only professional musical theatre company, 1987's South Pacific was a benchmark for Cabrillo Stage. Up to this point visiting directors were casting roles to actors, not singers. South Pacific director Marcia Taylor cast vocal sensations Michele Rivard and veteran Broadway actor/ singer Alan Gilbert in the title roles. Accolades were given to the superior crooning and a new standard was set at Cabrillo Stage.
The 1988 production of My Fair Lady starring film veteran Peter Donat and Kathryn Atkins was a another huge success, to the point that Cabrillo Stage added a six-show week to accommodate the crowds.
Cabrillo Stage has seen tremendous growth year to year. In 1989, Cruse introduced producing contemporary musicals alternating with classics, starting with Evita. By 1991 Cabrilloճ reputation had grown significantly and actorճ were pouring in from the all over the Bay Area, Southern California and New York to audition.
Over the coming years Cruse chose a variety of shows: Sweeney Todd (1993), The King and I (1994), Oliver! (1995), The Sound of Music (1996), Funny Girl (1997), Annie (1999), and Peter Pan (2000), all of which were highly praised by the critics.
"Our phenomenal production team gives each show a unique vision," says Cruise, "And we do whatever it takes to make a unique theatre experience which results in our high production values."
Cabrillo Stage gained an unsurpassed reputation for bringing audiences the "must see event of the summer season" (Ann Bennett, Santa Cruz Sentinel). Always aiming for cutting edge musical theatre, Cabrillo Stage produced the Monterey Bay premiere of Honk! The Ugly Ducking in 2001, and brought you the wildly successful Some Like It Hot in 2002.
With the continued goal of presenting unparalleled musical theatre to thousands, Cabrillo Stage entered its 22nd season with West Side Story. In 2003, 15, 000 people attended the summer production of West Side Story which was hailed by critics as not only an artistic success, but a triumphant culmination of all that Cruse had attempted to achieve over the years. With the fanfare of West Side Story Cruse chose to retire after 22 years at the helm of Cabrillo Stage.
In 2004 scenic designer Skip Epperson became the new Artistic Director for Cabrillo Stage producing The Music Man that summer. In 2005, Epperson tested the repertory waters by producing two musical productions, Annie Get Your Gun and The Fantasticks. The company was thrilled to have Lile Cruse return as guest Musical Director and Conductor of the pit orchestra for Annie Get Your Gun.
As Stage launched into its 25th anniversary season in 2005, Jon Nordgren, known for the bands program in the Cabrillo Music Department, became the new Producing Artistic Director, choosing Guys And Dolls as his inaugural show. Upon this changing of the guard, Lile Cruse commented. "I have observed Nordgrenճ high production values for years and I am confident he will uphold the professional standards for which Cabrillo Stage has come to be known."
In accepting his new role as Artistic Director, Nordgren said, "I plan to continue the tradition of excellence that Lile and Skip have established at Cabrillo Stage. It is my hope that the community will continue to support our endeavors to keep this Santa Cruz tradition alive for many years to come."
Nordgren's vision and risk-taking has brought Cabrillo Stage to new heights. He returned the company to a two-show summer season with Little Shop of Horrors and Kiss Me Kate (2007), and Forever Plaid and Jesus Christ Superstar (2008). The 2009 summer season of Love Perfect Change and The Wizard of Oz, were such box office sensations that Nordgren launched the company into its first Christmas season offering, producing Scrooge in the brand new Crocker Theater in the Visual and Performing Arts Complex at Cabrillo College.