In his 11th year at Wagon Wheel Theatre, Tony Humrichouser still speaks about the theater with as much excitement as an actor on his first day on the stage.
And he talks up his fellow actors and production team members more than he talks about himself – even when an interview is supposed to be about him.
“We have a really good company this year. No attitudes. Hard working. They’re all really technically proficient. They know their stuff,” he said at the start of an interview Tuesday at the theater even before the first question could be asked.
When pressed for a biography about himself, he quickly runs through it before he heaps more praise onto the cast, crew and staff of the Wagon Wheel.
He began acting at 15 in high school after years of performing in choirs. He was cast in “The Music Man” as a tenor but told the director he wanted to dance. The director made him show up early for dance practices; Humrichouser got really good and later ended up playing the role of Baby John in “West Side Story.”
He’s been a professional actor ever since.
He started at the Wagon Wheel 11 seasons ago after artistic director Roy Hine saw him in a performance in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Enchanted Hills Playhouse, Syracuse. Hine, Humrichouser said, was his champion back then and remains so.
Humrichouser got his first chance at directing at the WWT seven seasons ago when he directed “Camelot.” It wasn’t his first directing job; he directed “You Can’t Take It With You” when he was 19, but that ended up a disaster and he said he thought he would never direct again. But after directing a few musicals at the Playhouse, his confidence grew.
Hine and the staff at the Wagon Wheel taught Humrichouser the importance of collaboration between the artistic director, the choreographer, the technical and musical directors. The benefits of collaborating on a play are numerous, he said, and infectious.
“It makes the process a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Thomas said. Through collaboration, everyone involved is able to approach the play without egos getting in the way.
Humrichouser is directing the first play of the WWT summer season, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which, he said, is rooted in burlesque and vaudeville. Through the collaboration process he’s learned over the years at the WWT, each person can bring their own ideas to the table and make the production more rounded.
“I’m so pleased right now,” he said. “I hope I’m not jinxing it, but it’s going to be a really great show.”
And Humrichouser heaps praise on his lead in “Forum,” Rod Thomas. “Rod is fantastic in it,” he said. “He’s a really good friend but that doesn’t get in the way, it only makes the show better.”
Which is a good thing for both men because the second show of the season, “Inherit the Wind,” stars Humrichouser and is directed by Thomas. The friendship between Thomas and Humrichouser is just another good thing about the theater, Humrichouser said. Friendships are made and last.
“Rod Thomas is outstanding,” Humrichouser later added. “His time has not yet come. It will come because he is extremely talented. He does (theater) for the right reasons, he does it for the art, he does it with such joy. He’s really dedicated to everything he does. It inspires myself and the cast to work to their full potential.”
Another aspect of WWT Humrichouser praises is that actors often grow up through the theater.
He points to former Warsaw resident Marie Weller as an example. She will star as Phillia in “A Funny Thing” and is now a student at New York University, plus she’s a very talented actress, too, Humrichouser said. She got her start at Wagon Wheel.
For the role of Phillia, Humrichouser said they auditioned hundreds of actresses, but when they couldn’t find the right one, they contacted Weller and offered her a contract. One of the songs Weller sings in “Forum” is “Lovely,” which, according to Humrichouser, Weller exudes.
Of his own role in “Inherit the Wind” as Hornbeck, a reporter who reports on the Scopes Trial of 1925, Humrichouser said, “It’s a great part. Tony Randall originated the role. Gene Kelly played the part in the movie. It’s an incredibly observant role, almost to the point of being abrasive. He makes valued points to both sides of the argument.”
Another actor in “Inherit” is Jim Daniels as Henry Drummond. Daniels was one of Humrichouser’s mentors at Northwestern University, where Humrichouser went to school. Humrichouser said Daniels really made him like being an actor. Not only has Humrichouser played Daniels’ son twice on stage now, but Thomas also has played Daniels’ son. Between the three men, Humrichouser said, there is mutual admiration.
“To be able to come to a theater and work with your friends ... we have such respect for each other and don’t want to let each other down, we all work toward our full potential,” Humrichouser said.
Regardless of the other offers Humrichouser said he receives, he always returns to the Wagon Wheel because each production is done “from a fresh perspective, which is really what theater should be.”
The creative energy “flows around here all the time,” he said. “That’s no exaggeration. That’s why actors want to come back here year after year. Even people who have gone away and been successful want to come back here and work just because it really is a wonderful place to work. We really like each other here.”