PETER PAN at Cabrillo Music Theatre
In what was, to some, a bold move towards progress and expansion, but to others, an unnecessary decision of questionable reasoning, Cabrillo Music Theatre has chosen to change its name to 5 Star Theatricals. The announcement was made last night by the organization's managing director Will North on the stage of the Kavli Theatre, prior to the opening night curtain of its current production of Peter Pan.
The lobby was buzzing at intermission as the audience tried to digest the fact that the venerable Cabrillo Music Theatre brand, a constant in Thousand Oaks since 1994 (and even longer in Ventura County) and the crown jewel of its thriving and vibrant theater arts community, would be now relegated to the past. The main question that is being asked is "Why?"
The official reason, as explained by North to the audience, is that Cabrillo is looking to expand its geographical sphere of influence and the scope of its productions to include plays and other forms of entertainment. Thus, the necessity to rename the organization and remove the word "music" from its title. Why they didn't simply change it to "Cabrillo Theatricals" remains puzzling, as the organization will be wiping clean a brand that they had carefully been building since the company got its start in Oxnard nearly 50 years ago.
At least one member of Cabrillo's board of directors, who spoke to us at last night's performance, believes that the threats to shut down the company altogether, first in 2014 and again last year, had tarnished its image, but it's possible that North, who stated when he took the reins of Cabrillo a year ago that he wanted to mold Cabrillo into a national brand, wanted to make the change anyway and start afresh. Given that, it's understandable why they would want to give the company a shining new image. But from our point of view, the ramifications of this reset weren't completely thought through and that the shedding of the Cabrillo name, which appears to have been of paramount importance to the board, no matter what the consequences, could be problematic and confusing to its present and future patrons. (We will be conducting an interview with North in the ensuing weeks to get his views on the change.)
The most obvious question regarding the name change, other than "why?" is "What will the general public think?" Many of the actors and paid crew members won't really care, so long as their checks keep getting cashed, but business is all about branding, and when you discard a long-standing brand like Cabrillo, which has grown to stand for excellence, passion, fortitude, and resiliency, you're taking a gigantic risk.
The Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza has, since its opening in 1994, hosted two resident theater companies: Cabrillo, with its "Broadway in Your Back Yard" slogan (which has possibly been jettisoned as well) and Theater League, the national touring company whose shows have become increasingly suspect in recent years due to a succession of undistinguished, frugally unsatisfying (i.e. cheap) productions. Former artistic director Lewis Wilkenfeld often lamented the fact that patrons of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza didn't know the difference between the two or didn't care that there were two different companies hosted at the Kavli, its cavernous 1,800 seat showplace. Wilkenfeld lamented that Cabrillo's reputation was being damaged by Theater League's lackluster, often embarrassingly bad productions. The confusion will no doubt be amplified now that a third name has emerged.
The name "5 Star Theatricals" itself has caused some concern among its critics, partly because of its corporate-like blandness, and partly because some fear that the name will cause confusion with other similarly named organizations in the region. The Four Star Theatre Alliance is a consortium of six community theaters in Ventura County (Conejo Players Theatre in Thousand Oaks, Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard, High Street Arts Center in Moorpark, Camarillo Skyway Playhouse, Ojai Art Center Theater, and the Santa Paula Theater Center), some of whom might be offended by the appearance of one-upsmanship implied by the additional star in 5 Star's name, although we doubt this was done intentionally or with any malice. Further south, 3-D Theatricals, which has changed venues three times since its founding in 2009 and is now at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, also has a name that is similar to 5 Star's.
For a company whose productions have been consistently imaginative, "5 Star Theatricals" is a name that is both bland and colorless. One is reminded of musical parodist Allan Sherman's 1964 album Peter and the Commissar, a musical satire poking fun at communism in the Soviet Union, using melodies and the story line from Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, in which Sherman recited:
These people on these committees, they sit there all day
And they each put in a color, and it comes out gray.
And we've all heard the saying, which is true as well as witty
That a camel is a horse that was designed by a committee.
Now, we aren't comparing the name change to communism, but the point is a salient one. "5 Star Theatricals" is hardly a name that will conjure up singularity in the marketplace. Additionally, the new 5 Star Theatricals logo, which has already been emblazoned on T-shirts (some of which North tossed out to the audience after his announcement) and flyers is ordinary and generic, and doesn't reflect the creative brilliance of Cabrillo's productions. One patron, who told me they work as a graphic designer in the entertainment industry, took one look at the new logo and said, "I see a lot of logos at work and this says nothing to me." The "5" looks strikingly similar to the one used by Los Angeles television station KTLA, while the word "Star" might be confused with the Ventura County Star, the region's only print newspaper. On the flyers that were printed up and displayed in the Kavli lobby, announcing 5 Star's upcoming season of musicals, the word "theatricals," probably the most important defining word in the new name, is so small, it would take a microscope to be able to read it. In addition, the company is adding to the confusion by having to inscribe "formerly Cabrillo Music Theatre" on its literature and advertisments for the forseeable future.
The absence of the slogan "Broadway in your back yard" is also of concern to some. For decades, Cabrillo Music Theatre has not only represented theatrical excellence, but it has remained, first and foremost, devoted to the community. Its family-friendly productions, community outreach, and inclusion and cultivation of local talent, especially in giving young performers their first professional experiences, has remained one of its primary attributes. How the name change and consequential expansion will affect this perception of being a community production company devoted to local talent remains to be seen.
Whatever you might think of the name change, the deed has been done and everyone will eventually have to get used to it, just as people did when GTE was replaced by Verizon and Time Warner was renamed Spectrum. This happens in the communications world all the time, but changing a long-existing brand in the entertainment industry is a risky venture. If one is to believe that the board of directors made the change because they thought that Cabrillo's reputation had been besmirched by its recent financial woes, then why didn't other organizations, such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, who went through a catastrophic period during the reign of its former owner, Frank McCourt, or the New York Metropolitan Opera, during its own challenging financial disasters, change their names?
Time will tell whether 5 Star Theatricals will turn out to be Ventura County's version of New Coke, but the one thing they have going for them is the continued excellence of its productions. From the looks of Peter Pan, which made its debut last night, nothing has changed. The show is as stunning and as superbly designed and performed as any in the company's existence. But we think the wholesale name change was hasty and unnecessary. Cabrillo may have had its financial problems, but it never affected the consistently outstanding Broadway quality of its productions. As Shakespeare once said, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet."
It remains to be seen how North and the board's vision of expanding the scope of Cabrillo's musicals-only palette will fare. The company had enough trouble financing its four musicals a year (now reduced to three). Where will the money come from to support the promised additional productions, which will have to be staged elsewhere in the county, or possibly even in Los Angeles? Stay tuned.