BY CARY GINELL
Larry Raben is an accomplished actor and director who has added his prodigious abilities to a multitude of productions around the world. In addition to acting in a command performance before Queen Elizabeth II in London and producing Sweet Charity in Argentina, Raben has also graced Cabrillo Music Theatre’s stages in productions of Singin’ in the Rain, The Producers, and, most recently, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Raben is directing Cabrillo’s summer offering this year, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which will prove to be the final production overseen by Cabrillo’s longtime artistic director, Lewis Wilkenfeld. We talked with Larry not only about his plans for the show, one of Cabrillo’s most challenging and ambitious productions, but also about working with the indefatigable Wilkenfeld.
VCOS: Have you directed fantasies before?
LARRY: I think the answer to that is no! The closest thing would be Hairspray, which is a stylized musical comedy, but it’s certainly not a complete fantasy.
VCOS: But you’re still dealing with, more or less, real characters, even though some of them are really kind of cartoonish.
LARRY. Yes, so, I guess this would be my first.
VCOS: So what kinds of things do you do differently with a fantasy or a live action version of an animated film?
LARRY: Well, I’m a huge Disney fan, which helps. And I loved this film when it came out. For me, as a director, it’s trying to look at these different worlds. What is the world above the water and what is the world under water? How do these peoples’ hopes, dreams, and needs compare? How are they the same and how are they different? It is a universal story about parenting and about finding yourself, but for me, mostly, it’s clearly about defining those different worlds so that you can take disparate situations of families and help them learn something from each other through their differences.
VCOS: What about mechanically?
LARRY: Mechanically, it’s different in that the characters underwater have a different movement vocabulary than the people above water and we wanted to find a way to explore what that lack of gravity does to you under water, so we have three different flying tracks for the seven different characters that are going to fly. We’re using hover boards, heelies, skateboards, in-line skates, gymnastics, as well as modern dance in the use of our Kelp ensemble. The under-the-sea world is where Ariel has always lived – in the Palace. The area where Sebastian takes her is the urban center where the real parties happen; that’s his under-the-sea kind of world, which is a much more urban world. So, in that way, our production is going to be unique from other productions that I’ve seen as well as the original animated feature film.
VCOS: Do any of the mechanical devices that you are using come from out of town?
LARRY: Yes. The flying is coming from back East: ZFX Flying, who did Mary Poppins. They’re great. The hover boards are brand new; I don’t know if anyone has used them in a production of The Little Mermaid before, but we figure it’s the most current technology, so why not explore that? That’s been fun. David Engel, who is playing King Triton, is using his own in-line roller blades. And there were a few things that came with the costume packages, like the heelies, the wake boards, the skateboards, a few of those things.
VCOS: Is that basically your major challenge in the show, how characters move on stage?
LARRY: Technically, it’s going to be a huge part of it, because, really, at the core of it, it’s just another wonderful family musical comedy. It’s truth about what these families are going through. What makes it interesting is that they live in all these exotic places.
VCOS: That’s pretty much what Disney has been all about since the very beginning, isn’t it? Common values and familiar stories played out using exotic characters in exotic atmospheres.
LARRY: Yes. And before those, all you had was Rodgers and Hammerstein, and you know, they took us all over the globe when people didn’t have the ability to travel, and they took us to Thailand and the South Pacific.
VCOS: Tell me about the challenges that the choreographer has in this show, who is, in this case, Heather Castillo.
LARRY: Heather has worked in the world of commercial dance but is now working on her doctorate, I believe. She’s a fully tenured professor and she’s amazing because she is also a dance historian. She approaches the storytelling from the ground up, right through her feet. She believes that every character moves through space and that it acting is a dance, even if it’s just blocking for scenery. She does a lot of experimenting with movement, and there’s a lot of “play time” so she can find out who and what these characters are, because we have sea creatures as well as people, and that makes it an even bigger task. I’ve really enjoyed watching her. In her lair, Ursula the Sea Witch, has Flotsam and Jetsam, who are eels, but we’re adding a Kelp bed of characters to help her do her black magic. They reach up through the water and grab Prince Eric as he’s drowning and do some other things which are beautiful mini-modern dance pieces. And it’s been really fun to watch her craft that.
VCOS: So is the Kelp kind of an adjunct ensemble?
LARRY: Yes, they’re ensemble dancers. They’ll be in body stocking outfits but we won’t see their faces, it’ll be like the Pilobolus Dance Company, people moving through space and telling a story that way.
VCOS: You’re dealing with characters who are not real people and, in many cases, aren’t people at all to begin with. So since you’re dealing with two-dimensional characters, how do you fill in the blanks to give them depth?
LARRY: Because we’re artists and storytellers, we naturally bring the human condition to the storytelling, even if we are using cartoon characters or representations of cartoon characters. When Hans Christian Andersen told the original story, it was to both entertain and educate people about teenage angst and all kinds of different things so that they could, in a fun and loving way, poke fun at human folly and to tell you a story about the problems you might be having dealing with your own teenage daughter. So for me, as a director, that’s what I do. I get people to find the truth first and then I love to find the funny on top of that. For example, take King Triton’s family. He’s a father with seven daughters and there’s no getting around that. So whatever species you’re in, there are still familial connections and love.
VCOS: You’ve worked with a lot of directors and producers over the years but on this show you’re working with Lewis Wilkenfeld. What makes Lewis Lewis?
LARRY: Lewis is an amazing cheerleader for Thousand Oaks and this community. He believes that, from the first time you enter school, the arts should touch you at a very early age, as an audience member, through summer camps, singing in front of the theater before shows, at pizza fund raisers, comic nights, and all kinds of things. He just believes that communities are better and tighter and you have a feeling of being part of a big family when the arts are in your life. That’s what I love about him. He’s 24/7, non stop about it.
VCOS: I always like to say that running Cabrillo is like managing a major league team using minor league sensibilities. They play all the games as well as the clubs in the majors, but they also know how to make it fun and engaging for everyone with that small-town minor league feeling.
LARRY: Theater is a huge business, but he does make it feel like it’s not. I’m not sure what exactly we’re capitalized at for this production, but it’s well over a half a million dollars. So it’s a big chunk of change. And, as we found the other day when we were on a phone call to ZFX, we had budgeted for two flying tracks and had to add a third, just because of what the storytelling tells you you have to do, so we suddenly had to front for another flying track. And being the good producer that he is, Lewis called his board and they stepped in line and said “If we’re going to put on this show, we have to go full steam.”
VCOS: How many Cabrillo shows have you worked on now?
LARRY: I think this is my fifth or sixth. I’ve directed three. I did Singin’ in the Rain, which I won an Ovation award for, and the one I did before that was Forever Plaid. I did it years ago in a smaller space and then a few seasons ago I did it again in the Kavli.
VCOS: If you get a chance to direct again next year, sans Lewis, what would be your choice?
LARRY: Well, I’m very passionate about Evita, so, given the choice, I would love to do that. I worked in Argentina and lived there for four months and I think it’s an amazing story and a great adult musical with a little bit to it. So I would absolutely love to work on that show.
Cabrillo Music Theatre’s production of The Little Mermaid runs for ten performances beginning Friday, July 15. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.