In ‘Norman’s Ark,’ the joy of survival


It’s A scene that’s nail-bitingly familiar to post-Katrina America: a family trapped atop their roof as a frenzied storm rages all around.

In this case, it’s the Johnson family, the central characters of the new musical “Norman’s Ark,” opening Wednesday night at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater. And as a pretty typical American family, the Johnsons are carrying over a little pre-deluge domestic dysfunction.

“They’re all mad at Dad, saying he should have gotten them out earlier,” says Philip Casnoff, who stars as the maligned patriarch.


A gentle English teacher with a soft spot for Shakespeare and happy endings, Casnoff’s Norman is a bit bewildered by his sporty, hyper-modern offspring. But now he and his brood have been thrust into a situation in which they must literally sink or swim together.

“They have to work out their family problems against the backdrop of something much bigger,” explains Casnoff.

Something much, much bigger as it turns out. In an attempt to calm nerves all around, Norman indulges in a little soothing storytime. Recasting the story of Noah’s Ark with his family at the center, he suddenly, unwittingly conjures up the sum total of four gospel choirs, a fully choreographed menagerie and God herself in what Casnoff characterizes as the “Aretha Franklin-like voice” of Dawnn Lewis. As his character enters into a dialogue with the Almighty, “I lose control of the story,” he understates.

Featuring a cast of nearly 200 and incorporating many pre-professional drama and dance students as well as a variety of community members, “Norman’s Ark” seeks to create an appropriately epic canvas upon which to illustrate some of life’s largest themes.

“It’s about faith in one’s fellow man, that there’s something bigger than ourselves, not in a religious sense but a very spiritual one,” says director Peter Schneider, known to many theater buffs for the Tony he won producing “The Lion King.” “That’s an important message today. I think mankind as a group always questions why natural disasters happen.”

For Casnoff, addressing that question meant an opportunity to channel a little Method acting. It was one song from the musical -- “Daddy Is Here” -- along with our local fault lines that provided him a visceral link to Norman.


“It reminded me of when our kids were very small and the Northridge earthquake happened,” he says. “It was that feeling of not being able to protect them from something so much more powerful than we were and having to take your fear and sublimate it in order to make them feel protected.”

While Norman, perched high up on the family home, struggles against his own intense acrophobia to sing “Daddy Is Here” to comfort his terrified daughter, “I thought that was such a true thing,” Casnoff says. “During the earthquake we were telling our kids everything’s going to be all right but at the same time realizing we had no idea that everything was going to be all right at all.”

For Schneider, that question of how people behave in the face of disasters became a major animating principle, a resiliency he found underscored by the musical’s uplifting gospel and rockabilly soundtrack.

“There is joy in survival, in terms of knowing ‘I came through that. I managed to survive something awful and am I a better person for it? I hope so,’ ” says Schneider, who himself spent the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, in a grounded plane on the tarmac at JFK airport as the World Trade Center towers crumbled. “You didn’t die, and it changes your life.”





WHERE: John Anson Ford Amphitheater, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd.

E., L.A.

WHEN: Opens 8:30 p.m. Wed., runs 8:30 p.m Tue.-Sun., ends June 8.

PRICE: $34 to $75. See website for details.

INFO: (323) 461-3673;