An awakening of their own

How Baylor classmates Josh Gonzales and Matt Tolbert teamed up onstage — and in real life — for WaterTower’s ‘Spring Awakening’

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UP AGAINST THE WALL | Gonzales and Tolbert will share their first scene — and first onstage kiss — as the gay couple in WaterTower’s sexually frank musical ‘Spring Awakening.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Matt Tolbert may be just barely old enough to drink legally (he’ll turn 23 in October), but he’s already an experienced theater hand.

Four months ago, he was finishing up his last semester at Baylor University before a May graduation, but he’d already made his professional debut earlier this year, hanging upside down as a torture victim in WaterTower Theatre’s production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Soon after that, he co-established a theater company and produced a show for the Out of the

Loop Fringe Festival; as of last week, his day job is assistant to WTT’s producing artistic director, Terry Martin.

“I guess you could say I’m aggressive about my career,” Tolbert concedes, “though I say I’m just highly motivated.”

And one thing he was motivated about was getting cast in WaterTower’s upcoming production of Spring Awakening. Ever since Tolbert learned of the show, he’d wanted to be in it, so when WTT put it on their 2011-12 schedule, he knew he’d audition. But even more, he wanted to be in it with his partner Josh Gonzales.

The two met several years ago while both were studying at Baylor (Gonzales is still there, with plans to graduate next spring); for the past two years, they have been a couple. But while they have been in shows at the same time, they have never shared a scene. Spring Awakening seemed like a good chance for them to do a musical together.

“I was in love with the show and when I heard WaterTower was doing it, I jumped at the chance,” says Gonzales, 21. “[Matt and I] have been in five shows together before — this will be our sixth — but we very rarely interact onstage. This is our first time to get to act.”

The plan was for Tolbert to play Hanschen, the slightly predatory gay teen, and Gonzalez to play Ernst, the object of his lustful urges in the explicit, sexually charged musical about the yearning of 19th century youth (which oddly echoes the same feelings of youth in the 21st century). Still, getting cast was hardly a sure thing, even with Tolbert’s connections at the theater.

So this summer, Tolbert studied voice with Mark Mullino, who was about to start work as the music director on Spring Awakening. Tolbert planted seeds with Mullino that he and Gonzalez would be interested in doing the show.

Alas, it seemed destined not to happen.

“Matt went to the audition but I couldn’t go because I was in New York,” sighs Gonzales. Not only that, but once the call-back list was released, Tolbert was asked to re-audition… for the role of Ernst.

“I thought, ‘Darn! I missed my chance,’” says Gonzalez.

But, despite the downbeat message of Spring Awakening, true love was determined to find a way.

Martin, who is directing the show, decided to do a second round of call-backs. Gonzales thought maybe he could try out for Hanschen, “even though Matt would be a better Hanschen than me. Or I could just be in the ensemble — I would do anything,” he says.

Tolbert and Gonzales auditioned together; Martin asked them to sing one of the show’s signature songs, “The Bitch of Living,” with each other. They did it once. Audition over.

It wasn’t until the next day they were both cast as they’d hoped: Tolbert as Hanschen, Gonzales as Ernst. It’s a dynamic that has been fed by their own relationship.

“It was a lot easier to do once we started rehearsals,” Tolbert says. “We didn’t need to choreograph the kiss. But we like [recreating] the awkwardness of the seduction — even though Hanschen is the seducer, it’s his first time, too.”

Still, art does not imitate life — at least not in this instance.

“Ernst is a little confused throughout most of the show, because he’s not exactly sure what he wants, but ultimately he just wants someone to be intimate with,” Gonzales says. “The tragedy is that Hanschen just wants someone to have fun with.”

In real life, the couple is truly committed. Gonzales is still in school in Waco, meaning he has to commute several times a week to attend rehearsals. When he’s able, he stays in town with Tolbert. Well, sort of — they both stay at Tolbert’s parents’ house, though in separate rooms.

“It’s interesting because our families don’t know we’re gay — we just came out to our close friends this summer,” Tolbert explains.

That’s likely to change soon. Especially after opening night.

“Obviously there’s a little chemistry — how could there not be?” Gonzales admits. Tolbert agrees the friends and family they are not out to yet will probably figure it out. But until they do, it’s enough to combine work and romance.

“It’s great we can share [the kiss]. I trust him completely… and I don’t want him to kiss another guy. Our goal is never to have our understudies go on,” Gonzales says.
Ah, young love… .

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 30, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Stage reviews: ‘Inishmore,’ ‘Death Is No Small Change!’

TERRORIST AT WORK  |  A cruel Irishman (Matt Moore, right) plies his trade on a drug pusher (Matt Tolbert) in ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore.’ (Photo by Mark Oristano)

Pussy gore-lore

‘Inishmore’ makes cat torture funny; Pegasus mounts a colorful black & white play

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  |  Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a horror-comedy about a dead cat and a terrorist, which sounds neither horrific nor comedic, and that’s sort of the idea. An unbalanced 20-year-old lad named Padraic (Matt Moore), who was drummed out of the Irish Republican Army for being too cruel, learns his boyhood cat, Wee Thomas, is ill and rushes home to see him.

Wee Thomas isn’t actually ill, though — he’s already had his brains smashed out before the play begins, and his father (Jason C. Kane) and skittish local boy Davey (Tony Daussat), who may have done the deed, are just trying to let Padraic down easy. Because if Padraic finds out what really happened … well, that’s a road best not traveled.

This is playwright Martin McDonagh’s bloodiest dark comedy, a gorefest that has more exploding, gooey brains and missing eyeballs than a Freddy Kruger film. It would be even more disgusting if it weren’t so funny.

But this production could be funnier. Daussat in particular is an unmined vein of comic gold. Davey, the long-haired, hyperbolic, possibly gay town idiot cannot be ratcheted up too high on the hysterical meter. He needs to come out like a Roman candle, befuddled but frantic, but Daussat never achieves that level. I’ve also heard a more authentic accent in Irish Spring ads (or, for that matter, family reunions).

By the second act, the show hits its rhythm: Not only does a crew of terrorist rivals (Clay Yocum, Evan Fuller, Ian Ferguson) add energy and better brogues to the mix, but the bloodletting rises to horrendous levels (by the end, actress Kayla Carlyle looks like she’s just come from Carrie’s high school prom). Director Terry Martin and special effects whiz Steve Tolin don’t shy from the excess, which is where this play really succeeds. McDonagh’s genius is being entertaining and disgusting at the same time. Who doesn’t wanna meet that challenge?

The selling point of Pegasus Theatre’s “black & white plays” has always been their black & whiteness — a masterful effect that makes everything onstage appear grey, as if from a 1940s B-movie. Each new play deals with famed but bumbling private eye Harry Hunsacker (Pegasus founder and playwright Kurt Kleinmann), the Mr. Magoo of crime solving who loveably stumbled on the solution with the help of his “best friend and paid by the hour assistant Nigel” (Ben Bryant). The mysteries — convoluted potboilers that do keep you guessing — are usually hit-and-miss affairs, rising and falling on the jokes and casts.

It’s ironic, then, that the b&w effect the night I saw the latest, Death Is No Small Change!, it had some flaws (a blue light from a Tesla coil, a few patches of uncovered skin) but the production itself was just dandy. Director Susan Sargeant keeps up a brisk pace (until the inevitably talky explanation), and stages the comings and goings smoothly.

This is probably Kleinmann’s best play, with surprisingly strong characters for a melodrama, performed nicely by the actors (many of them Pegasus vets): The ghoulish butler Sebastian (hysterically overplayed by David Benn with Karloffian creepiness) and the mad scientist (given Shakespearean bravado by Mario Cabrera) are especial standouts, getting into its William Castle-like “spooky mansion” ethos. They turn it into something Pegasus shows usually aren’t: Colorful.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Jan. 14, 2011.

—  John Wright