Michael Raabe is music director of the moment in Tampa Bay area theater. At Freefall Theatre, he is playing piano and leading the band in a smashing production of Cabaret, fast on the heels of his doing the same, but in a very different kind of show, for American Stage in the Park performances of The Rocky Horror Show.
"With Rocky, our goal was just to rock out," Raabe says. "For Cabaret, I'm proud of the orchestrations and vocal arrangements I did."
Todd Olson, producing artistic director of American Stage, loved the way Raabe led the band in the park this year. "He seems so laid back, and then his band is so sharp and dynamic," Olson says. "It's just his talent and what he hears that makes him so good."
Other musicals Raabe has worked on in the past year or two include Grey Gardens and Man of La Mancha at Freefall and Pump Boys and Dinettes at New American Theater.
On Sunday night, he turns his hand to performing a concert with singer Sara DelBeato. On the Cabaret set, the duo will delve into the songs of summer with a program they call "Too Darn Hot!"
"We'll do some Beach Boys songs, like God Only Knows," he says. "We'll do some interesting mashups, putting songs together like The Boy From Ipanema with Blister in the Sun by the Violent Femmes."
Raabe, 33, grew up in Watertown, a farming community in northeast South Dakota, and his story is like that of many a stagestruck kid.
"My friends loved Metallica and stuff, and I had discovered the Andrews Sisters, Ella (Fitzgerald), Sinatra," he says. "I was in all the shows at Watertown High School. I played the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, Cosmo Brown — the Donald O'Connor role — in Singin' in the Rain. I took piano lessons from this wonderful lady who realized I was not interested in the classical stuff and let me play jazz and pop and Broadway. My first recital I did Great Balls of Fire in this church."
He would make the trip to the Twin Cities to see Broadway tours, such as Beauty and the Beast, and the first major show he saw in New York was The Drowsy Chaperone, an affectionate spoof of musicals. "I remember crying at the end," he says. "It was a great introduction."
In 1999, Raabe moved to the Tampa Bay area to work at Busch Gardens as a performer, and he continues to be the vocal director at the theme park. He tries not to treat the commercial shows there any less seriously than a Stephen Sondheim musical. "I think you can put your heart and soul into anything," Raabe says. "We just did Dance to the Music, a '70s disco show, at Busch, and we tried to make it the best it could be."
In Florida, he finally saw in person one of his unlikely inspirations, the venerable popmeisters Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. "What I loved about being in Florida is that so many pop standard acts come through," he says. "The first time I saw them, at Van Wezel Hall, a friend and I from Busch drove there with a sign in the car that said 'Steve and Eydie or Bust.' Yes, they do some cheesy stuff, but musically, they're big inspirations. I have always loved their Broadway covers."
Raabe's work on Cabaret is notable for its inventive touches. One example is the trio in Hawaiian shirts that he and director Eric Davis added to pop up in a doorway to sing harmonies in It Couldn't Please Me More, with its pineapple lyrics. "One of my favorite moments in the show is I Don't Care Much, with just David (Mann, playing the Emcee) and piano," he says. "I'm trying to get everything I can emotionally out of it. It just feels very raw, very truthful."
Next season, Raabe is signed on for John & Jen, an Andrew Lippa musical at Freefall, and the American Stage park production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. He winds up the season doing musical direction for the rock musical Spring Awakening at Freefall.
Is there a dream musical that he would like to do? "Gypsy," Raabe says after thinking a moment. "It's great material and there's stuff open to interpretation. I want to do a cabaret show of the whole score of Gypsy."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.