BY CARY GINELL
Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden is the second-to-last show to be produced by Cabrillo Music Theatre, and for its hard-working cast, Cabrillo’s announcement of its impending cessation of producing musicals at the Fred Kavli Theatre arrived like a thunderbolt from the heavens. The announcement has created an unsettling feeling amongst its cast members, but doing the show has also been therapeutic as they come to grips with facing the reality of Cabrillo’s demise. We talked with two of the young stars of Children of Eden, Natalia Vivino and Ryan Driscoll. Thanks in part to their work in Cabrillo, both have bright futures in professional theater, but the stepping stone that Cabrillo has been in their own careers will no longer be there for future performers. In part one of our interview Natalia and Ryan talk about the show itself and the roles they play in it.
VCOS: This show never made it to Broadway and there were a lot of rewrites before it finally became a success in regional theater. How does it compare with other musicals with religious themes?
NATALIA: I feel like the central themes of Children of Eden are what differentiate it from shows like Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, which are both about Jesus. But this show deals with themes of family, forgiveness, and acceptance. There are very human connections in it that I think audiences can draw from. It’s a religious show but, to me, it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to tell the audience to believe in any particular way. It tells these stories from the Bible in a way that makes them very human and very relatable.
VCOS: Does it make you examine these feelings in yourself?
RYAN: Yes, I think so. Definitely. I think the difference between those other musicals and Children of Eden is this. I believe that it is more relatable for anyone who comes to see the show. I think there is a lot of humanity in it and a lot of different aspects that human beings can relate to instead of being just a spectacle. Audiences will be challenged by it and they will be questioning things and it opens up a lot of different things. I don’t think people are as impacted by Godspell as they are by Children of Eden.
NATALIA: I’m sure that audience members will leave the theater and really be thinking about their relationships with their own family members after watching Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and that whole family. In Act II, it’s those relationships on stage that are very human.
VCOS: Would you say that the relationship between Adam and Eve and Father constitutes the first dysfunctional family?
RYAN: (laughs) Well, what’s cool about the story, I think, is that it allows us, as human beings, to accept that we’re not perfect. We can strive to be perfect, but from the beginning of time, we haven’t been. Especially coming from a religious standpoint, to strive for perfection and to be sinless and godly is a difficult thing, but we really are hard on ourselves as humans. So to accept that we’ve been dysfunctional from the beginning of time, I think it allows us to sit back and breathe and know that it’s okay. Everyone in this process of staging, getting this show up and running, relating to everybody in the cast, you discover more about each other as humans. The show is really bringing all of us together, but we recognize that we all have issues. Maybe someone in the cast has an issue with their father or brother, and that all comes to light in this musical.
VCOS: Most of the characters are named after actual personages in the Bible except for Father, and of course, Natalia’s character, Yonah. Schwartz could have used “God,” but instead, he chose “Father.”
NATALIA: The “Ark” family went out to dinner last night and we were actually talking about this. Stephen Schwartz and John Caird created a very human God. Even God is not perfect in this show. He has his own faults and his own struggles, which are very interesting.
RYAN: Yes, I think that we’ve opened a door and are seeing things through a different lens, or even looking at God differently. But Father, in this musical, is a god that’s full of emotions that you can relate to. Just like in the Bible, he’s a jealous God and he feels things, obviously, but when you create this musical and put God in a human form, played by an actor, you are allowed to display human emotions differently. God isn’t just a disembodied voice, he’s somebody you can see and touch, and when he’s angry or jealous, it comes across.
VCOS: So Schwartz was humanizing him for a reason?
NATALIA: Yes, he’s very much a parental figure, especially with Adam and Eve, who are his first children. He’s their dad and they’re his kids. And you see that transformation from Act I to Act II.
RYAN: Which is why it’s pretty incredible that even though this is a Bible story, he’s taking the approach of telling a normal story using the Bible as structure. It’s not as much about Genesis as it is about the “first family.”
VCOS: Tell me about your characters.
NATALIA: Before rehearsal started, I did some research and quickly discovered that my character, Yonah, is not in the Bible. The name “Yonah” is the Hebrew word for “dove.” I don’t want spoil the story, but that will become very clear in Act II. A lot of people mix up Yonah with Jonah, who is in the Bible, who goes on this ship and is considered bad luck and gets thrown overboard and is swallowed by a whale. But what I found out about Yonah is that she was written into the show because although Act I has its conflicts, in researching Act II, I found a Q&A with Stephen Schwartz where people were asking him about Yonah, and he said, “Well, John Caird and I were trying to figure out what we could do because in the story of Noah’s ark, there are the three sons who have their wives, they go on the ark, and everything’s fine, but we needed a conflict, so why not do a love story?” So the youngest son falls in love with a girl who’s of the race of Cain and he wants to bring her on the ark but can’t because she bears the mark of Cain. So that’s how Yonah was born.
VCOS: Is there a particular way you are playing her?
NATALIA: What I try to do when I have a new character to play, I try to find things that I have in common with them. In the last show I did, The Addams Family, I didn’t have a lot in common with Wednesday (laughs), but I just adored her. She was awesome and I had a lot of fun with her. But I feel very protective of Yonah and we do have a lot in common. She doesn’t like conflict, she doesn’t like when people fight, she wants to be a peacemaker, and she is very sensitive. So I just tapped into that and just spent a lot of time trying to think her thoughts and put myself in her shoes.
VCOS: Or her sandals, I suppose.
RYAN: Adam and Eve were barefoot (laughs).
NATALIA: (laughs) Yeah, they were the original hipsters!
VCOS: How about your character, Ryan?
RYAN: In this musical, the actors in Act I also play different characters in Act II. In Act I, I play Cain and in Act II I play Japheth, who is the youngest son of Noah. Cain is a very complex character. In Genesis, there are a lot of gaps in the lives of Cain and Abel, but in this show, they are not portraying Cain as being very jealous of Abel because God favors Abel’s offering over Cain’s. In this show, the relationship between Cain and Abel is close and they’re great brothers to each other and don’t have a lot of issues. The main issue is that Cain is kept at home and is not allowed to go anywhere or explore their world.
VCOS: He doesn’t ask Father for the keys to the car.
RYAN: Right. If he did, he’d get smacked (laughs). So Adam and Eve keep Cain on a leash and he doesn’t like that, so he tries to explain it to Abel, and he doesn’t understand it. He’s my younger brother, but he doesn’t see my frustration. So – spoiler alert – I end up murdering my brother in a fit of rage but I intended to kill my father.
In part 2 of our interview, Natalia and Ryan will talk about the emotions the cast is going through and how they are coping with the impending demise of Cabrillo Music Theatre. For dates and showtimes for Children of Eden, see the VC On Stage Calendar.