Arts & Culture

Kelrik Productions’ last curtain

Erik Austin with one of the props from Kelrik’s 2008 production of the musical ‘Annie.’
Erik Austin with one of the props from Kelrik’s 2008 production of the musical ‘Annie.’ TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO BY LAURA DICKINSON

S aying goodbye is never easy. But for Erik Austin, parting grows more painful with each passing day.

After several years of acting, directing and teaching children’s theater in San Luis Obispo County, the Kelrik Productions co-founder is leaving the Central Coast.

“It’s a bittersweet thing,” said Austin, who is moving to San Diego this fall. “I was so gung-ho about (my decision) back in December. … As it’s getting closer and closer, it’s really hard.”

Before he goes, however, Austin will leave local audiences with a final gift: “Into the Woods.”

The fractured fairytale musical, which features a story by James Lapine and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, will run for a single weekend — July 16, 17 and 18 — at the Spanos Theatre.

As children, Austin and his younger sister, Kelley, launched Kelrik Productions in the basement of their Portage, Ind., home. When Austin and his family moved to San Luis Obispo in 1988, the budding thespian staged shows at the San Luis Obispo library, San Luis Obispo High School and the city’s Meadow Park Recreation Center.

After enrolling at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City in 1993, Austin spent three years handling merchandising for the Broadway production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” before moving to Los Angeles and taking over the Excalibur Theatre in Studio City.

Kelrik Productions won “Best Children’s Theater” from L.A. Parents magazine in 2000.

Austin returned to San Luis Obispo in 2004.

Over the years, Kelrik Productions has established a reputation for affordable, family-friendly theater productions and sizzling hot musicals. This season’s selections included “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Cabaret,” “Oliver!” and “Seussical the Musical.”

As much as he’s loved living and working in San Luis Obispo, Austin said, he’s ready for a change of scenery.

“Wherever you go, you get in your rut of doing the same kind of thing all the time,” he explained. “I feel like I have to do (this) for myself. … It will be a good change.”

His final show will be a tribute to his time on the Central Coast.

Austin first produced “Into the Woods” in 1993 as a senior project at San Luis Obispo High School. He revived the show six years ago for Kelrik Productions at Unity of San Luis Obispo.

“It was a hit,” Austin said.

“Into the Woods,” which made its Broadway debut in 1987, puts a modern spin on such familiar folktales as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella.” It follows a baker and his wife who make a deal with a witch in order to have children.

Kelrik Productions veterans Matthew Ambrose and Lacey McNamara star as the childless couple, opposite Kerry Mayling as the Witch. The rest of the 16-member cast includes Danielle

Dutro as Rapunzel, Joe Ogren as Jack, Lauren Seidenberg as Cinderella and Rachel Vasquez as Red Ridinghood.

Longtime Kelrik collaborator Stephen Tosh will serve as musical director.

Austin said he decided to skip holding auditions for the play. Instead, he simply called up his friends.

“I just wanted it to be all the people who have supported me over the years,” said Austin, who plays Cinderella’s beloved prince. “Kelrik has given an amazing opportunity to so many performers, adults and children.”

Although this production of “Into the Woods” features the same costumes and much of the same cast as his 2004 version, Austin said it will boast better lighting equipment, “crazy cool” smoke machines and a grander, more versatile set complete with a 15-foot tower, soaring beanstalks and falling trees.

“Whatever show I’m staging, I do a little movie in my mind,” he explained. “I try to make it as Broadway as possible.”

Like all the plays he’s staged, Austin said “Into the Woods” has special meaning for him.

“When I was young … I just thought they were cute characters and songs,” he said.

“Even though it’s a fluffy musical, there’s a lot of meaning behind it,” he added. “It’s about the different choices we have in life. We all go on different paths.”

It’s a strikingly appropriate choice for Austin, who’s embarking on a new path of his own.

Austin is getting married Aug. 14 at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo —he promises a “super awesome and gaudy” ceremony with “bubbles and streamers”—before heading off on his honeymoon in the Mexican Rivera. He hopes to find an apartment in San Diego in September and move in October.

After stints living in New York City and Los Angeles, “I’m still a big-city person,” Austin said. He’s also eager to reconnect with his sister, who works as a public defender there.

Austin hopes to revive Kelrik Productions in San Diego, tapping into a new market of theater fans hungry for kid-friendly shows. And he’s already promised to return to the Central Coast next spring to teach theater at Children’s House Montessori School of Atascadero and Montessori Children’s School in San Luis Obispo.

“To experience live theater is wonderful,” he said. “It’s so invaluable for so many parents to take their children out to see (it).”

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.