Ella (Lav Raman, R) is surprised by Marie (Amanda Lee) in Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts’ production of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Ella (Lav Raman, R) is surprised by Marie (Amanda Lee) in Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts’ production of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” Photo by Gary Nieter, Times-Union.
Growing up as a South Asian girl, Lav Raman said she didn’t see a lot of people that looked like her playing roles like Cinderella.

She gets the opportunity to play Ella in Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts’ production of “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” June 2-11, and she hopes to inspire other females like her to take on roles that weren’t traditionally made for them.

“The first Broadway show I saw was ‘Aladdin,’ so seeing Jasmine on stage - that was always my dream. I was like, ‘Somebody that looks like me is playing Jasmine! I want to do that! I want to go into theater! I want to play Jasmine!’” she said in an interview Monday at the Wagon Wheel, along with Mike Yocum, who plays Sebastian.

She still dreams of playing Jasmine one day, but also finds it “really cool” to be playing a role that she never thought she could growing up.

“I feel like ... the traditional version of Cinderella is not something I thought looks like me and it’s not something I ever thought I could do, so I think it’s really important to be bringing that representation so that young girls who are like me can see people - because I, honestly, never had that, so I think it’s really exciting that there are people who can see this and think that they also can go into theater and play roles like Cinderella. They can still tell a beautiful story no matter what they look like or where they come from,” she stated.

Yocum said, “A fairy tale needs to be available for everyone.”

This version of the fairy tale of Cinderella also is the slightly different revival version of the original, he said, though the Wagon Wheel put on this same show about eight years ago.

Speaking about his character of Sebastian, who was added in for the revival, Yocum said, “They added in a mean, old coot in the revival on Broadway, so that’s who I am. You might think of it like Jafar in Aladdin. That guy!”

At the beginning of this “Cinderella,” the king and queen are dead, so Prince Topher (Brooks Andrew) is left to his own devices and eventually will become king.

“But I am serving as his advisor, but you might get the feeling from watching and listening to me that I want to be more than advisor if I can,” Yocum said. “So, the king and queen were in the first version, they’re gone, replaced by this sort of Jafarian, evil advisor type.”

The stepmother and two stepsisters are still in the show, making Ella’s life difficult.

What’s “really interesting” about this version of “Cinderella,” Raman said, is that both of the stepsisters aren’t evil. One of the stepsisters is actually very kind-hearted.

“I think what’s very interesting about this version is that it’s not only Cinderella’s story, it’s also each smaller character really has their own character arc and their own personal story developed through the show, and so Gabrielle (Cassie Maurer), one of the stepsisters, throughout the show, figures out her own life and her own love and kind of diverges from the other stepsister and her mother and finds her own path, too, and kind of helps Ella as they both split off from the family that they’re used to,” Raman said.

The stepmother is still a villain to Ella.

She said “Cinderella” is a fairy tale that a lot of people know with the same pattern of, “Ella goes to the ball, she has a fairy godmother, she loses her shoe by accident and then the prince finds her and they live happily ever after. In this version, I feel like Ella has a lot more of her own power that she steps into. She does have a fairy godmother who does grant her wishes, but her fairy godmother is kind of a mentor, guiding her and supporting her and saying, ‘You can do this,’ instead of ‘I can do it for you.’”

The fairy godmother helps strengthen Ella so she can make her own decisions so that when she does go to the ball, instead of leaving her shoe by accident, she picks it up again, Raman said.

“So that’s how the first act ends is that she accidentally leaves her shoe and then she comes back and takes it with her. So the first act kind of goes through the traditional story of ‘Cinderella,’ but then the audience is left wondering, ‘This isn’t how it usually ends,’” she said.

Act II is an addition to the traditional story and it shows more of her “coming into herself,” Raman said, but also her relationship with the prince, Topher, and how Ella helps him “step into himself as a king and find how he can help his own people.”

During “Cinderella,” Raman has a number of costume changes. She starts out in her peasant wear, has a transformation into her ball dress, starts the second act in her peasant wear again before transforming into another ball gown and ends in another dress. There’s also wig changes, shoes to slip in and out of and other accessories.

“There are glass slippers. They are hard to walk in, but they are beautiful,” she said.

Like many of the other actors this summer season, this is Raman’s first season at the Wagon Wheel. It’s also her first professional stage show. She just finished her freshman year at Penn State.

She has done some film work experience.

“Last summer, I got to be a part of Billy Porter’s upcoming directorial debut,” Raman said. “The film is called ‘Anything’s Possible,’ and it’s coming out sometime soon.”

Porter played the Fabulous Godmother in the 2021 movie of “Cinderella” that also starred Camila Cabello as Cinderella, Nicholas Galitzine, Idina Menzel, Minnie Driver and Pierce Brosnan. Porter also appeared in the television shows “Pose” and “American Horror Story,” and the movies “Like A Boss” and “The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy.”

Raman plays Shivani in “Anything’s Possible,” which is set in a high school. She thinks it will be released on a streaming service.

“It’s a story about a trans girl who finds love and it is a really beautiful story that kind of shows that people with differences can live normal lives and be like other people,” she explained.

Raman said she was able to interact with Porter and it was a lot of fun. “He spent time before filming to really talk with us and we watched a documentary about trans history and that was really cool because I think he really wanted the movie to be fun-hearted and not a trauma piece, but he also wanted us to have the history behind what we were talking about, so I thought that was really special and made it a lot more personal for a lot of us,” she said.

Yocum said his first show at the Wagon Wheel was in 1983, joking that’s the year that Raman’s parents were probably born. He started making regular full-time appearances on the Wagon Wheel stage since 2000.

One thing that’s going to be different this year, he said, is that in the past the Wagon Wheel did 11 performances for each show, starting on Wednesday, “but in order to give our crew more time - because it’s a lot to try to bring in a whole new set and change all the lights, and it’s really very stressful for them - so we’re actually moving our start date back to Thursday, which gives us a full extra day to get things prepared. And then that means we’ll do just 10 performances, but ... not every performance is packed out, so we’ll just sort of move people around to different days and I think we’ll still be able to serve as many people as ever.”

Tickets for “Cinderella” can be purchased at the Wagon Wheel box office or through the website at wagonwheelcenter.org.