'Spring Awakening's' Kyle Riabko has a road-tested talent

A few hours before a performance, Kyle Riabko, the lead actor in the touring production of "Spring Awakening," is milling about backstage at the Ahmanson Theatre. He saunters into his dressing room and checks his Blackberry, which rests upon a sketch of his character's costume.

He's affixed a dozen faux mustaches onto his mirror, and a cluster of plastic noses hang from a door handle, even though neither are part of his get-up in the play. Below the row of bright bulbs lighting his vanity, his nameplate is tacked prominently on the wall.

Later that evening, Riabko, 21, would take the stage to play Melchior in "Spring Awakening," the Tony Award-winning musical that depicts the challenges for a group of teenagers discovering their sexuality in late 19th century authoritarian Germany.

Since May, Riabko has taken on the role of a precocious 15-year-old who questions the strict intellectual and moral worlds he's confined to. When the nightly performance ends, Riabko is usually greeted by a slate of smitten tweens who gather eagerly around the stage door, hoping he'll sign their Playbills. On his Facebook page, dozens of girls have posted pictures of themselves posing alongside him and his pinup features -- perfectly coiffed blond hair, blue eyes and a defined jaw line. "Kyle Riabko touched my shoulder!" reads one caption.

But it was only a year ago that Riabko was cramped in a van touring with Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers, an alt-country band of guys in their late 20s. He'd joined the group for a touring stint as a guitarist while he was in high school.

"We were amazed at how young but how mature he was at the time," says drummer Brian Factor. "Like, 'Man, he's only 16 and he can hang out with us and we don't feel like we're baby-sitting.' He was instantly one of us."

Together, Riabko and the Sixers would wake up at 7 in the morning, cram into a van and take catnaps while driving for eight hours until they reached the next city. They'd load their gear into the venue, do a sound check, eat, play a show until midnight, then crash at a hotel.

"It was a cool but hard lifestyle. I guess I always wanna seem like I'm playing with the big boys," he says with a laugh. "There was a little bit of them sneaking whiskey into my drinks and stuff."

Riabko picked things up quickly from a young age. He got his first guitar, a Stratocaster knockoff, when he was 10. He started a band with buddies and called it 10, 11, 12 for the members' respective ages. After school, he'd hole up in his bedroom, writing his own music for hours until he fell asleep, curled against his guitar.

Born in Saskatchewan, a Canadian province filled with barren prairie land, he grew up with his younger brother and his parents, whom he describes as an encouraging and modest couple who fell in love when they were 15.

"My upbringing was so quiet that I felt like I needed a megaphone or something," he says.

So when he turned 16, Riabko sent a demo to Aware Records, which was about to break singer-songwriter John Mayer. Within weeks, Riabko had his first record deal.

"We signed the deal surprisingly fast -- shockingly so," he recalls. "In retrospect, I kind of think it was ridiculous. They signed me way too soon because I hadn't really worked yet. I didn't know what it meant to be in the trenches because it was all being handed to me."

Soon, Aware merged with Columbia Records, where Riabko was marketed as a guitar prodigy: The young, little skinny guy playing blues music seemingly more mature than he was.

Then a sophomore, he took high school courses on the road and began serving as the opening act for bigger-name performers like Maroon 5, Jason Mraz and B.B. King until he found a temporary home with the Sixers.

It was during time on the road with the group that Riabko decided to try his hand at acting. His agents helped him land a guest-star role on the popular Canadian television show "Instant Star."

"And then my agent was like, 'What about Broadway?' " Riabko says. "And I was like, 'What?' I'd never even seen a musical before. I mean, we put on 'Fiddler on the Roof' at Evan Hardy Collegiate, but that was my exposure."

So he and Factor, the Sixers' drummer, went to see a production of "Spring Awakening." Riabko immediately identified with Melchior -- who he found "stood for truth and knowledge but realizes he's surrounded by falseness and repression" -- and gathered up his guitar to head to an audition.

Tom Hulce, one of the show's producers, recalled being instantly struck by Riabko's presence.

"When he auditioned for us he played his own music, and that was really cool because it was the first time we had heard someone who had their own quite engaged music career come in and sing our show to us. He's beautifully confident in who he is."

He got the part -- and immediately launched into rehearsals a mere 20 days before a three-month stint on Broadway, to be followed by several months of touring with the national company.

Riabko is involved in arguably the play's most racy scene, which somewhat graphically depicts him and the female lead losing their virginity onstage. Despite having to bare his behind, Riabko denies being nervous about the intimate scene.

"I mean, I can remember how it felt when I was in grade 9 with my first girlfriend, having the hairs on your body lifting and wanting to touch and not being able to," he said. "In the play, that same bustling of emotions leads into this beautiful tableau."

"He sure does get a lot of hoots and hollers," said Blake Bashoff, who plays Melchior's best friend, Moritz. "The cool thing about Kyle is that I think he's sort of an unconventional heartthrob. He's grounded and has sort of become the leader of the pack amongst the cast because people respect him."

The show plays in Los Angeles through Dec. 7. While in town, Riabko and the rest of the cast have been staying in Little Tokyo, walking to the nearby Pinkberry and sneaking off to meet casting directors during their downtime. Next month, Riabko will play a solo gig at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood, where he hopes to be greeted by new musical theater fans who've purchased his CD in the Ahmanson lobby.

He says starring in "Spring Awakening" has served as a great promotional tool for his music. Once the production closes, he doesn't want to take a break -- he plans to get right back on the road, backtracking through the cities the company has performed in on his own with his guitar.

"I just put on my blinders and always look at what can be done as opposed to what could stop me from doing it," he said. "My dad was a really positive thinker. If I had a cold, my mom would try to slip me some medicine, but my dad would say, 'Just think your way out of this one.' And it would always work. That's how I'm trying to live my life -- doing everything to make it happen."

Kaufman is a freelance writer.

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