Walking into Musical Theatre West’s administrative headquarters in Long Beach, you might wonder if you time-traveled back a few decades. Bursting racks of glittering ’80s costumes for MTW’s upcoming production of The Wedding Singer crowd the hallways. The whole building is alive with movement — the rehearsal room is bustling with activity, every desk in the office is occupied, and there is even a happy golden retriever making his way around the place. After giving the pooch a pat on the head, Larry Raben, director of The Wedding Singer, takes a seat.
Raben is perhaps best known in LA for originating the role of Sparky in Southern California’s introductions to Forever Plaid — in San Diego, Pasadena and Beverly Hills — as well as in New York’s Off-Broadway and London’s West End versions. He played Leo Bloom in The Producers at Musical Theatre West, as well as on Broadway and in Las Vegas. Considering these credits, it should come as no surprise that he considers himself a comic actor with a penchant for musical theater. “This is my niche. I play the quirky, comic guy who strangely gets the girl. And I’m happy with that,” he says.
One of Raben’s most memorable experiences as an actor came when he was playing Sparky in London. The cast of Forever Plaid was asked to perform in the Royal Variety Show in front of Queen Elizabeth II. He explains, “The production includes a select sampling of the best shows each season. Each performs four or five minute segments.” Forever Plaid, however, received the honor of an 11-minute segment. After the show a select few performers were asked to meet with the Queen. Raben was included. “She has the most beautiful steel-blue eyes,” he says, looking lost in the memory. “She shook hands, she wanted to talk, and it was really magic. The energy field around her was palpable,” he says.
Forever Plaid also provided him with his first directing opportunity when Stuart Ross, creator and director of the show, asked him to assist in directing. “It was a really good way to bridge the worlds of acting and directing because I knew what worked for the show,” he says of the experience. “I learned from Stuart. He really was my mentor.” He claims his experience as a director has been valuable as an actor. “It’s given me a much better sense of what the audition process is like. It has taken a lot of guess work out of the process. And it makes me better behaved for other directors,” he says with a laugh.
In addition to acting and directing, Raben has also tried his hand at writing. In Toronto, he co-authored Motown at the Twilight with help from David Engel, Steve Gunderson, and Glenn Casale. “That was the first time I actually wrote,” he reflects. He also created a movie-musical revue called Hollywood’s Heyday! (2003), which ran in San Diego. As for future writing endeavors Raben says, “I would like to do more writing””I just get busy and I get lazy about it.” He hopes to have more time for writing once he has wrapped some upcoming projects.
In the past two decades Raben has become a staple in the Los Angeles theater community, frequently performing and directing at Musical Theatre West, Cabrillo Music Theatre, the Norris Center for the Performing Arts, and Reprise Theatre Company. “I love that each of these theaters has its own character. You would think that Southern California is homogenous, but each of these communities has its own real spark,” he says.
While he enjoys opportunities to perform in long-running shows in New York and Vegas, he sees a different value in working in LA. “In Southern California you’re generally only doing six or five shows a week, depending on the theater. It allows you to be open to a lot of other projects during the same time, whereas back East when you book a long run you’re completely taken out of the running for anything else,” he explains. Working in LA gives Raben the time and opportunity to work in commercials, TV, and film as well as theater.
One of Raben’s most frequented venues is Musical Theatre West. His previous projects as director at MTW include The Thing About Men, Never Gonna Dance, and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Past performances include roles in The Andrews Brothers, The Producers, and Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits: Volume One. “Musical Theatre West is the most supported theater I have ever worked for. Their volunteers and donors are amazing,” he praises.
Working at MTW has created other opportunities for Raben. When he directed The Thing About Men, playwright Joe DiPietro attended a performance and approached Raben with a job offer. “He said it was the best directed version of the show he had seen, including New York and London. He wanted me to direct one of his pieces at some later point,” he explains. In 2010, Raben directed the musical Falling For Eve — for which DiPietro wrote the book — at the York Theatre in New York City. The show debuted shortly after DiPietro’s Memphis won two Tony awards. Raben says that directing the show was “the most terrifying and probably the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done.” And it was his experience at MTW, he notes, that gave him the opportunity.
Raben’s longtime partner, David Engel, has performed with him many times. At MTW they appeared together in The Andrews Brothers, The Producers, and Forbidden Broadway. What keeps them coming back to the company? Raben explains, “Musical Theatre West is the premiere regional musical theater in Southern California. They get Broadway sets and costumes, amazing actors, and have a great staff. It feels like doing Broadway on the West Coast.”
The Wedding Singer
After he saw The Wedding Singer in New York, Raben discussed the possibility of bringing the show to Musical Theatre West with executive director/producer Paul Garman and artistic director/producer Steve Glaudini. He says, “I just threw my hat in the ring and said if you guys really want to do it I would love to direct it.” After the rights for the show became available, Garman and Glaudini contacted Raben who came on as director. Of the show’s appeal, he says, “The show has a great sense of humor and great energy. At the heart of it it’s a great old-fashioned love story. There is a really sweet story at its core.”
Raben is drawn to the show both for its merits and because he personally relates. “It feels like my whole youth in New York is all over this show,” he says. Comparing himself to Robbie, he reflects, “I had the bad mullet haircut. I went clubbing at night. The show just really hits my funny bone.”
He says that he sees the original film version of The Wedding Singer as an asset to the production. “It’s many people’s favorite film, so a lot of people will come loving the story already,” he says. As he directs, he takes the film into consideration. “After I get something staged I go back and watch the film scenes around it to see if there’s an essence of anything I might be missing. There are some detailed little nuances in the film that I am placing in the musical.”
Raben is also a fan of The Wedding Singer’s music. “Everything is amazing original music that all sounds like ’80s songs you know. All the songs are feel-good, happy stuff,” he says. David Lamoureux, a musician who has collaborated with Kate Costello and Gwen Stefani (among many others), is the musical director. “It’s really great to have an authentic person from the music world tackle this kind of score,” says Raben.
Also on board the creative team is choreographer Spencer Liff, whose work has been featured on the hit TV show So You Think You Can Dance, and who performed in the original production of The Wedding Singer. According to Raben, Liff is a protégé of Rob Ashford, who was the choreographer for the original Wedding Singer.
Playing Robbie Hart is Ciarán McCarthy, who was the understudy for Robbie in the national non-Equity tour of The Wedding Singer. Starring across from McCarthy is Renée Brna as Julia, who, Raben says, “lights up the room and opens your heart — and then she opens her mouth and has great pipes.” Also appearing are Derek Keeling as Glenn, Jenna Coker-Jones as Holly, Kelli Provart as Linda, Nick Bernardi as Sammy, Matthew J. Vargo as George and Mary Jo Catlett as Robbie’s grandmother. “And our ensemble is off the charts,” he adds.
After The Wedding Singer wraps, Raben’s next directing project will be Sunset Boulevard at Gateway Playhouse in Long Island. He raps his knuckles on the table. “Knock on wood, Lorna Luft is my Norma Desmond. They’re negotiating with her right now,” he says, referring to the Broadway veteran and daughter of Judy Garland. The show opens Aug. 3.
One of his bigger projects is Coyote StageWorks, a not-for-profit theater company he founded with partner David Engel. The pair aims to bring professional theater to the desert with the new company. Coming up will be a co-production of Boeing Boeing with the Norris Center for Performing Arts, which will start at the Norris and have a second run with Coyote StageWorks at the Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs.
LA fans can look forward to Raben’s return to MTW when he directs Hairspray in the fall. He and Engel are also likely return for a follow-up to MTW’s production of Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits: Volume One for the upcoming Volume Two in April 2012.
The Wedding Singer, Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach. Opens July 9. Ticket prices: $30-$70; last row seating available at additional discount; group rates available for 15 or more; $3 service charge per ticket. Plays Thur-Fri. 8 pm; Sat 2 pm and 8 pm (no matinee July 9); Sun 2 pm (additional 7 pm performance July 17). Through July 24. Box Office at 4350 E. 7th Street, Long Beach open Mon.-Fri, via phone at 562-856-1999 x4, or online at www.musical.org.