LIFE DOESN'T GET much better than it is today for Christy Altomare. "Spring Awakening" opens tonight in her hometown of Philadelphia, and she's playing the female lead, Wendla, her self-described "dream role."
It's also her golden birthday. She's turning 23.
"It's kind of ridiculous. It's like the planets are aligning and I'm just meant to be there," said the Yardley native, who's been touring with the musical for nearly a year. "Spring Awakening," which won eight Tony awards in 2007, is making its first stop in Philadelphia. The show runs through June 28 at the Academy of Music.
Set in a repressive, provincial 1891 German town, the show follows a group of teens on their paths to self-discovery and sexual awakening. Though the story takes place 108 years ago, the award-winning score is composed of more modern rock numbers, and organic vocals by singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, with lyrics by Steven Sater.
"Unlike any other musical, we're singing contemporary music but we're performing a serious drama in the mix of doing that," Altomare said.
Altomare attended Pennsbury High School, where she acted regularly in shows and community theater productions, then studied at the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. She, like her co-star Kyle Riabko, had little professional experience before joining the tour. Riabko said this was a good thing for "Awakening."
"[Producers] look for people with more raw talent, as opposed to those who are finessed and studied, because the kids we're playing are undiscovered people. They don't know who they are yet," Altomare said. "It's cool when audiences actually see hormonally charged kids searching for themselves on stage."
Riabko, a native Canadian and songwriter, starred as Melchior, the male lead, on Broadway for four months before joining the national tour. Philadelphia will be his final stop with the show before he hands the role off to another Canadian actor, Jake Epstein.
Riabko didn't have such a great experience the last time he was in Philadelphia three years ago performing his own music. He woke up the morning after the gig at the TLA to find his trailer stolen. It was packed with clothing, passports, five guitars, amps and "mega amounts of equipment."
After filing a police report Riabko and the four men traveling with him decided to rent a van and drive back up to Canada.
"We had nothing with us. We were just five lowly, skinny Canadians with nothing to our name, laughing and joking the entire way back," he said. "That ride was like the most beautiful, fun experience I've ever had."
"Spring Awakening" has similar moments of youthful exuberance, but the show also deals with heavy subject matter: depression, suicide and sexual abuse.
"This show is about laughing, yes; leaving with a spring in your step, yes; the excitement, yes; but also about this message of life and growing up. It's a cautionary tale," Altomare said.
Speaking of cautionary, parents should be forewarned the show includes a steamy but tasteful on-stage sex scene.
"We have simulated sex on stage eight times a week in front of 2,000 people each night. When you put it in those terms, it's a strange concept, but really we're servicing the show by showing people this piece rather than showing people something that's gross or violating," Riabko said.
For both actors, the tour has felt like a working summer vacation of sorts. They've enjoyed seeing how the show has been received, and they've also enjoyed seeing different parts of the country. The group visited the Space Needle in Seattle, the St. Louis Gateway Arch in Missouri and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Altomare said she'll assume the role of Philadelphia tour guide while the show is here.
"I'm gonna take everyone around. We'll definitely get Philly cheesesteaks and Rita's Water Ice, because it's stuff in Philly you can't get anywhere else. That's my big plan." *