BY CARY GINELL
Last night’s opening of Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Children of Eden was every bit as enchanting and magical as anticipated. After the debacle of Theater League’s Ragtime, in which two synthesizer players were hidden back stage, out of sight of the audience, it was a pleasure to hear a sumptuous orchestra of musicians playing real instruments in the Kavli orchestra pit once again. My review of the show will be forthcoming, but today, we conclude our visit with Natalia Vivino, who plays the role of Yonah, and Ryan Driscoll, who plays Cain and Act I and Japheth in Act II. Natalia, Ryan, and the rest of the cast of Children of Eden had to conduct rehearsals for the show while Cabrillo was going through the turmoil of deciding its own future. The stress and emotional levels were high during this process, but there was a tremendous sigh of relief when the recent news that Cabrillo had once again been saved was announced to the cast. Opening night was an artistic triumph for Cabrillo, with the roller coaster of emotions regarding its viability hopefully receding into the past for the time being. As our interview continues, Natalia and Ryan talked about their characters and the motivations behind them.
VCOS: So what about these characters reflect your own lives?
NATALIA: One thing about Yonah that I identify with is that despite being so reserved and solitary and trying to please everyone, there is this hidden fire inside her and she finds she has more strength than she realizes, and when it comes time for her to show it, it’s quite impacting. When she sings “Stranger to the Rain,” that’s the moment where it really comes across as to how emotionally strong she is. I feel that is quality of hers that people don’t really notice at first.
VCOS: Schwartz said in an interview that that is one of the two or three favorites of any song he has written. It’s a different kind of song, isn’t it?
NATALIA: It is. It has highs and lows of different emotions and I love singing it.
VCOS: In Schwartz’s shows, there is always a lot of variety in the music. In Children of Eden, you have gospel, you have Caribbean, you have vaudeville jazz. Did the scope of the music surprise you guys?
RYAN: Yeah, it did, and I think it will be surprising to the audience, too. It’s definitely a mix of everything, but it doesn’t come across like a revue.
VCOS: There were reasons for having different kinds of music for each segment of the story. Act I’s songs are simpler and are written in major keys, different instruments are used to convey different moods, it was really well thought out. Can you feel how the tapestry of the score changes from act to act?
NATALIA: Oh yes. Especially if you compare the beginning of Act I with the rest of it. The tone of the music shifts as the story progresses. I keep thinking back to the end of Act II with “Ain’t It Good,” which is a big gospel piece and we’re all really, really happy. But there are times where the characters are singing and music from prior scenes are being underscored. It’s totally on purpose because the elements from that song and its meaning ties into the current scene. It’s so clever.
RYAN: Right after Cain murders Abel, you hear some of that.
VCOS: Is that why he double-cast the actors?
RYAN: I think that he wanted to relate the generations and have this relationship between Noah and Adam because both were fathers and both have children with issues and have new beginnings. Both those stories are similar in many ways, so by using the same actors, they are able to get that point across.
VCOS: You mentioned before, Ryan, that Children of Eden is not a “spectacle” like Godspell. But there is a definite aura about the production itself. What can you tell me about it?
RYAN: It’s very colorful but it’s not a spectacle for spectacle’s sake. It’s cut down to where it is in a very raw and emotional place.
NATALIA: The show isn’t about special effects and scenery, but we’re going to have lovely sets and original costumes and such, but the special effects don’t make the show, the characters and music do.
RYAN: Yes, everything is very simple so that we can focus on the show’s true meaning. Nothing distracts. It’s an incredible story without frills.
VCOS: Speaking of distractions, there was this cloud over the show about what was happening with Cabrillo. Just as there is family turmoil in the show, there was offstage turmoil between Cabrillo and our community. How did this affect the cast and crew?
RYAN: It definitely had an effect on all of us. And with Lewis directing this musical, it had a huge effect on him as well. We have a massive cast and many people in it have been doing musicals for Cabrillo for over 20 years. So it definitely had an impact, especially with a show like this, which is about family. It’s pretty incredible that this was happening right now.
NATALIA: And this is also one of Lewis’s favorite shows. He has so much love for what he does and when he gave us the news that Cabrillo would be shutting down, it came very unexpectedly and hit us all very hard. To hear him have to give that news to us with such a brave face was really hard. But he said, “We have to do this show and we’re going to do a great job and then we’re going to do The Little Mermaid and finish with a bang.” It was very inspiring and emotional. The great thing was that we still managed to keep our spirits up and stay positive.
RYAN: In a weird way it benefited the show. We started at one level and then it skyrocketed. It definitely affected the vibe in the room and everyone stepped up their game.
NATALIA: It’s been an emotional show for us to do. There were tears being shed in run-throughs even before we got the news. Realizing in the back of our minds that for some of us this might have been our last show with Cabrillo, it was like wow, but I was really grateful to be a part of this. In a way, it really couldn’t be a more perfect show to be working on at this time.
RYAN: Norman Large, who plays Father, said the other day that he was sobbing in the back of the room during rehearsal. We were doing something on stage and he was in the back and just started clapping, and he said that in all of his professional productions and all the years he’s spent performing, he has never openly cried at any show. Ever. That tells you how strong and passionate this show is.
VCOS: For 20 years, kids coming up in middle and high school have looked to Cabrillo Music Theatre as if it were the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. This was the place where they strived to end up. If Cabrillo didn’t exist after this summer what would you have told those kids to inspire them?
RYAN: I grew up in Simi Valley and went to Moorpark High School and it was always something to look forward to. We did shows in school, then moved to community theater and then regional theater, and Cabrillo was definitely that goal for all of us. This is my first Cabrillo show and I’m finally glad to do it. When we thought it was all over, Lewis gave me a hug, and said, “I’m glad you finally got to do a Cabrillo show.” And I said, “Yeah, I’ve been wanting to this forever.” It was the thing to look forward to, that key stepping stone into professional theater.
NATALIA: It’s a wonderful opportunity to have a regional theater company so close. There is a very special warmth about Cabrillo that I don’t think that you can really find with every company. For me, Cabrillo has impacted me as a performer and helped me with my confidence. Without that little push, where would I be now? Will those kids coming up ever have that shot without Cabrillo here? It’s a hard thing to think about. But I would tell them, “Keep working and keep auditioning.”
RYAN: It’s important to tell everyone in this community to continue seeing shows and seeing local theater. Get involved in your school’s theater program. Moorpark College has an incredible performing arts program. John Loprieno runs that and it’s incredible. There’s Rubicon in Ventura – so there are other theaters as well. I have friends who drive to Riverside in two to three hours in traffic, to do regional theater, but there are still opportunities. This is such an incredible theater community, but Cabrillo is its heart.
VCOS: After this close call, maybe this is a New Testament for Cabrillo.
RYAN: Yes! Yes!
Children of Eden plays through April 17 at the Fred Kavli Theatre. Visit the VC On Stage Calendar for dates and showtimes for ALL Ventura County theater musicals and plays. Support your local community theater companies!