His latest, "The King," poses the question "What would happen if Elvis Presley had gone into a cryogenic freeze in August 1977 and been brought back to life today, in 2002?"
Newell's elaborate, multimedia production got its world premiere this summer at Stages Theater in downtown Fullerton. During its seven-week run, only one performance failed to sell out, so Newell started to think bigger.
"Given their social popularity, I had always wanted to bring theater to an open-air mall environment such as The Block at Orange, Irvine Spectrum or Triangle Square," Newell said by phone recently.
As "The King" was nearing its Aug. 3 closing, Newell and his producing partner, Jim Book, discussed several mall locations as possible venues where the show could be moved. Phoning The Block, Newell was passed from one person to another, ultimately speaking with leasing manager Caren Miller.
Miller had to do some research, but in early August, she met with Newell and Book, offering them the 25,000-square-foot space vacated by Mars Music in March.
"As it turns out," Newell said, "she (Miller) had always wanted a theater company at The Block but never knew who to call." Newell and Miller have devised a temporary lease arrangement that Newell said "works for both of us."
Arriving at the space Aug. 13, Newell and Book were faced with the prospect of converting what was essentially a retail location into a bona-fide performance venue. Their original target date was Aug. 16, the 25th anniversary of Elvis' death. That goal was unrealistic, as was the prospect of opening before Labor Day weekend.
Letting the space sit unoccupied was also not an option, so Newell, his wife, Heidi, and partner Book have been working around the clock to convert the space and rehearse the cast, which now includes several new performers and band members. The space opens tonight as The Maverick Theater, the new, semipermanent home of "The King."
Book, who runs his own company, Handless Man Theatrics, is an old hand at turning odd spaces into theaters. The Maverick is the sixth theater he has designed (the others include The Chance and Stages). He's been involved in every major production launched by Newell, helping him realize his artistic visions via technical wizardry. Newell's ideas are usually large- scale - he once directed a stage version of "The Magnificent Seven" - but Book is rarely frightened off.
With the Maverick, Book said the largest obstacle has been that the space wasn't designed for running a theater. "Ceiling supports are there only to hold up the ceiling, not heavy lighting equipment," he noted. "There are support poles throughout the store which have limited how wide we could go with the stage and where to put the seats." Oddly shaped interior walls and electrical power limits have also challenged his ingenuity.
Visitors to Mars Music may recall the store's numerous recital rooms around its perimeter. For the most part, those have been transformed into dressing rooms and a kitchen area for the actors. The front of the former store is now a lobby area and box office. The house (seats and stage area) are toward the center. The "backstage" area is to the sides of and behind the stage. The store's unseen warehouse is now a scene shop and a storage area for sets, props and costumes.