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Ricky Spaulding gets his own Spring Awakening in 5th Ave's latest production

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Ricky Spaulding — Photo by Rosemary Dai Ross
Ricky Spaulding — Photo by Rosemary Dai Ross

I must confess, there haven't been many new shows in the last 18 years that have excited me as much as Spring Awakening. I've seen it at least four times and love every song on the soundtrack. Though it's set in the 1890s, the characters resonate with the same repressed feelings we've all experienced in the last 20 years.

I was particularly impressed by actor Ricky Spaulding's talent, having recently seen him in Born with Teeth at ArtsWest last winter. I couldn't wait to chat with Spaulding over Zoom; below are excerpts.

On beginnings:
"...In sixth grade, I was in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat [at the 5th Ave] along with other young children, because the show has a children's ensemble...

"I first did Spring Awakening...at the University of Washington in 2017, where I played Hanschen. Interestingly, there's one other person in our cast who was in that production with me, Sage Cesaris. He played Ernst in that production, and he's also playing Ernst in our production. So we've done this show together before."

On the casting process:
"It was the first open call for the show, and they requested nonmusical theater songs, mentioning artists like Bob Dylan and the Beatles, aiming for a folk-pop-rock blend, which fits the show's style. I brought my guitar, played a song by Julia Jaclyn, and felt I could sing in my own voice, unlike typical musical theater auditions, where I try to match a specific sound.

"After the initial audition, I returned five more times, reading for various roles, like Hanschen, Melchior, Georg, and Moritz. Eventually, I was cast as Melchior. Jay [Santos], our director, immediately delved into scene work, giving me a taste of what it would be like to work with her. It was an intense process, with multiple sessions before I received the offer."

On his leading lady:
"Caitlin Sarwono, my co-star, has been fantastic. She studied music education, while I studied English literature, giving us diverse backgrounds beyond traditional musical theater. Despite this, we've both brought our strengths to the process. Our roles demand trust and involve significant intimacy, so establishing comfort and trust early on was crucial. With support from Jay and Ian Bond, our intimacy and fight choreographer, we've developed the necessary comfort as an ensemble to handle the sensitive material portrayed in the story."

On being nude on stage:
"We haven't completely ironed out what that moment is going to be. Jay has been very clear with us that she's interested in the storytelling of it, obviously, and she's not interested in gratuitous nudity or this sort of spectacle or titillation that can come from just seeing a nude actor on stage. She's been very clear that we will do exactly as much as the moment requires to deliver the event of the scene and nothing more, nothing less.

"But I think that will entail some nudity. And I feel really comfortable with it, because I know that's her approach. And I know that she has the attitude of 'we will do what's necessary, nothing more,' so I don't feel like it will be exploited or gratuitous in any way, which is really great.

"And then, as an actor, I'm really excited about moving outside of my comfort zone to do what's necessary to service the story. So as long as I feel like what's happening is in service to the story, I'm pretty comfortable with pretty much anything."

On keeping fit:
"In portraying characters like Robin Hood (in Village Theatre's production last fall) and Melchior, I consider what the story requires physically. As Robin Hood, a legendary warrior, I felt it necessary to get into a specific physical shape to embody that role. However, for Will in Born with Teeth, his physicality isn't central to the story.

"With Melchior, I interpret the text's description of him being handsome and active to inform his physicality. Exercise is integral to my routine as an actor, not just for physical preparation but also for mental well-being. It helps me connect with my body and be fully present during rehearsals."

On his favorite song in the show:
"I love how this musical fearlessly tackles nudity and profanity on stage. It delves into the danger of avoiding discussions about our bodies and sex, shedding light on how shame and taboos can hinder access to vital information. It's crucial. Breaking away from traditional expectations of musical theater, we boldly present scenes of masturbation, sex, and nudity to spark conversations about challenging harmful taboos.

"That's why 'Totally Fucked' is one of my favorite songs — it fearlessly confronts taboos, aligning with the play's message. It's thrilling to perform songs like this that provoke thought and push boundaries."

Spaulding and the rest of the fine cast are at the 5th Avenue Theatre through June 30. For ticket info, go https://www.5thavenue.org