THE WIVES OF Marcus Kaufman (in the hat) and Chris Perri became acquainted when their young children attended school together. By and by the two couples became friends. In one encounter, Marcus discovered that Chris was a musician who likes to compose music while Chris found out that Marcus enjoys writing poetry. Why not collaborate? And they have, on three musicals so far.
About six years ago, they created a “gospel/reggae/rock” adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, the famous 1946 movie directed by Frank Capra that starred Jimmy Stewart as the hapless George Bailey. Perri says this retelling of the Capra classic, “is set in modern day with interesting parallels of politics and economics,” citing the recent housing crisis and financial collapse. “The other parts are timeless themes: happiness, fame and fortune, family and community, doing for others and helping those around him.”
In 2009 a pilot audio was made to try to attract interest among theater groups.
The Perris’ daughter, Victoria Solenberger, was a voice pupil of Kathryn Adkins from age 10 to 18. On the demo, she sang songs from the new musical. With a background in singing and theater, Kathryn offered Chris and Marcus some structural suggestions that might make the show work on stage. “In 2010, Kathryn, heard the demo and contacted us. She immediately put on her director’s hat and went through a litany of everything we had done wrong,” says Perri.
I spoke with both Kathryn Adkins and Chris Perri and got a comment from Marcus Kaufman about the project.
Born in Brooklyn, Perri came to Santa Cruz “to become a rock star.” He has been a musician since his teens, and was lead guitar in the 1980s rock band from Santa Cruz called Eddie and the Tide. Now a subdivision contractor he still loves to write music, sometimes instantly inspired by a new tune, sometimes setting it aside to ripen. Kaufman is a technical marketing writer, editor and vice-president at Glenair Interconnect Solutions, “with a passion for story-telling and musical theater,” adding, “It’s a Wonderful Life is so full of rich and interesting characters that the lyrics and libretto came easy.”
Don and Kathryn Adkins became sweethearts at Western Oregon State College in Monmouth. Calling herself a singing actress, Kathryn has degrees in both theater and music. In the 1980s she took a five-year sabbatical to raise their two sons. She has been an adjunct theater arts and music instructor at Cabrillo for more than 20 years. “I have the best teaching job,” she declares. Previously she directed The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Her performance résumé includes leading ladies from Eliza in My Fair Lady to Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret. She continues to perform, most recently in Putting It Together for Cabrillo Stage and singing with the Cabrillo orchestra. Kathryn is also co-founder and program director for NextStage Productions, bringing education and health through the performing arts to seniors. She won a Metropolitan Opera District vocal competition and is trained in stage combat through the Society of American Fight Directors.
Don Adkins served a short tenure as conductor of the Santa Cruz Youth Symphony starting in 1983. He teaches music at Cabrillo College and conducts the Cabrillo College Orchestra. He has been music director for Cabrillo Theater Department productions of Brigadoon, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Seussical, The Mikado, Sweet Charity and Putnam County Spelling Bee. He is also music director at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Aptos and writes program notes for the Santa Cruz Symphony. He often performs in the Santa Cruz area as an accompanist for soloists and ensembles. Kathryn says of her husband, “In our college days he was working on his master’s and composing and orchestrating songs for a small children’s theater. His involvement with the orchestra and as music director for It’s a Wonderful Life has opened up skills that have been lying dormant for a number of years. It’s stimulated a creative process in a whole new way.” Perri adds, “It’s really reawakened him.”
Perri and Kaufman took many suggestions from Kathryn over time. “I worked with them as a consultant and a dramaturge,” she says, “as they let it grow.” What led to her decision to stage it? “I keep asking myself that. Sometimes it’s just timing. They had developed it to the place where it would sit and die or jump up to the next level.” Last winter, using the full script she asked herself, Why not present it to the theater class? This would also allow Perri and Kaufman “to hear their words sung by actors.” But the playwrights were both taken by surprise when she told them at the start of summer that she was prepared to stage and direct the show through Cabrillo College’s Theater Arts Dept. The acting class had brought the show to its best preparation by the end of June. “In the summer Marcus and Chris took our final suggestions,” says Adkins. “Don began working on the orchestrations, knowing what would be needed in the pit. The music was finalized during the summer. We began casting on September 1 and started rehearsals.” Perri worked hand-in-hand with Victoria and Don on producing the score. He will also be playing guitar in the pit orchestra. “So I won’t actually be able to see the show. But it’s out of our hands now anyway,” he says.
Kaufman and Perri’s It’s a Wonderful Life opens this weekend at Cabrillo Crocker Theater.