Theater is a family affair for Dana and Jenny Shaheen of Arroyo Grande.
For the past two decades, the husband-and-wife team has worked to bring high-quality community theater to the Central Coast in the form of Chameleon Productions.
The company celebrates its 20th anniversary with the Broadway musical “Into the Woods,” which opens Friday at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande. The show is being directed by Dana Shaheen, who’s doubling as set designer, and produced by his wife.
Dana Shaheen's sister, Julianna Winninghoff; Jenny Shaheen’s sister-in-law, Schuylar Howard; and the couple's two youngest daughters, Ashley Moses and Madison Shaheen, are among the show’s stars. In fact, 19-year-old Madison likes to joke that she was born into the theater.
“I was in a cradle in the green room at 10 days old,” said the Arroyo Grande High School graduate, who is headed to PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre in the fall. “You love what you know, and that’s what I grew up around.”
Dana and Jenny Shaheen met while working with the now-defunct Pacific Light Opera Theatre.
According to Jenny Shaheen, the couple grew frustrated of watching countless local companies operate haphazardly on “a wing and a prayer.” So they decided to give it a try themselves.
“There’s a lot of talent in this area,” Shaheen explained. “If you can give them the format, if you can give them the foundation, (we) feel it can elevate the process as a whole.”
The Shaheens launched Chameleon Productions in the spring of 1995 with a production of the religious rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Jenny Shaheen said the company’s name reflects its ever-changing nature.
“We’re nomadic. We don’t have a permanent facility or rehearsal space or anything,” she said. “You have to adapt to every surrounding that you find yourself in.”
Over the decades, the company has staged a string of popular productions at a rate of one a year — including “Cabaret,” “Les Miserables” and “West Side Story.”
Chameleon Productions’ latest show is another musical theater mainstay. “Into the Woods,” which features music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, re-imagines familiar Brothers Grimm fairytales including “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
“The first half of the (musical) tells some fairytales … that you grew up with. The second act tells you what happened after ‘happily ever after,’” explained Christian Clarno, who plays the Baker. He’s reprising his role from Kelrick Productions’ recent production of “Into the Woods.”
At the center of the story are the Baker (Clarno) and his wife (Karen Kahn-Pearson), who long to have children. But they’ve been cursed by the same Witch (Howard) who kidnapped the Baker’s sister, Rapunzel (Stephanie Wilson), as an infant and has raised her as her own daughter.
In order to break the curse, the Witch tells them, they must find “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn and the slipper as pure as gold.” So the Baker and his wife venture into the woods on their quest.
Along the way, they encounter characters including Little Red (Ashlin Hatch), who is going to visit her grandmother (Kyle Compton); Jack (Sean McCallon), whose mother (choreographer Shannon Lowrie) has ordered him to sell his beloved cow; and Cinderella (costume designer Madison Shaheen), who wants to attend the King’s festival despite the teasing she receives from her stepmother (Robin Wolf) and stepsisters (Moses and Meg Woods).
The rest of the cast includes Joan Pedersen and David Harridge as Cinderella’s parents, Gary Borjan-Hernandez as the Wolf, Mike Mesker as the Narrator, Gabby Pryor as Sleeping Beauty. Winninghoff plays the Giant, and George and Greg Gorrindo play the princes who romance Cinderella and Rapunzel.
Pedersen also serves as assistant producer and stage manager. Filling out the crew are musical director Mark Robertshaw, lighting designer Richard Jackson and sound designer R.J. McGinnis.
“The first thing we say to every cast (and crew) is, we created Chameleon, but you are Chameleon,” Jenny Shaheen said, noting that each production features a mix of returning talent and new faces. “It is such a community effort to do what we do.”
Pedersen, who’s participated in a number of Chameleon Productions shows, said the company excels at creating a positive vibe.
“Chameleon’s done a really good job of building that camaraderie and making it a really positive experience for everyone, through the whole process,” she said.
Wolf, who has worked with Dana and Jenny Shaheen since age 15, credited the couple’s leadership.
“It was amazingly inspirational to see people not sit around and complain, but do something, be proactive and take their future into their hands,” Wolf said. “I’ve never seen these two flinch from anything, ever, in a show. There’s an honesty there that has always brought me back.”
The Shaheens, who balance their Chameleon Productions duties with full-time jobs, said they relish the challenge of topping themselves each time.
“When you do a big show ... and you see how well it was received and how much the players loved it, it’s hard not to try to meet that (again),” said Dana Shaheen, who works as a physician’s assistant in the emergency room at Marian Regional Medical Center and at Central Coast Urgent Care in Santa Maria.
“You set your own bar and then you try to exceed your own bar,” said his wife, a Realtor with Haven Properties in San Luis Obispo.
“And pretty soon,” she added with a chuckle, “you don’t shower.”