Stage & Dance

Getting ready for summer 'Rent'

While temperatures plunged well below freezing New Year's weekend, more than two-dozen regional singers, dancers and actors focused their attention on the summer.

The planned late-July production of Rent by the Kentucky Classical Theatre Conservatory's SummerFest in the Arboretum on Alumni Drive was the catalyst for a three-day musical theater intensive.

"We were a little nervous about setting it for New Year's weekend," said KCTC director Trish Clark. "But we were overwhelmed with the response."

Clark said 32 participants, ages 13 to 40, attended all three days of the intensive that started New Year's Day in the University of Kentucky's Schmidt Vocal Arts Center, and 40 people joined at least part of the $50 workshop.

The event was scheduled during the holidays because that was when Rent director Tracey Bonner, a Lexington-native and veteran stage performer who is currently teaching at two California colleges, was available to lead the classes. And while they were giving up a holiday weekend for the workshop, most of the budding triple threats were happy to be there.

"Anytime I can work with Tracey, I'll do it," said Nick Vannoy, 22, who first studied with Bonner when he was a student at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. "Anything she says, I agree with, and it makes complete sense."

For many, the chance to work with music from the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning blockbuster was the main draw.

"I'm thrilled to have an opportunity to work on this show," said 18-year-old Transylvania University student Laura Campbell. "It's about people our age and real things they deal with, like paying the rent—and the music is amazing."

Since it opened in 1996, Rent has been embraced by legions of fans.

The story, based on Giacomo Puccini's opera La Boheme, is about a group of artists living in New York's Lower East Side dealing with issues such as homelessness, drug addiction and AIDS.

The show opened on Broadway in April 1996 and ran for 5,124 performances before closing in September 2008. It was produced as a movie in 2006, and a film version of the Broadway production, featuring Frankfort native Will Chase in one of the leading roles, was released in 2009.

SummerFest's presentation, July 21 to 25, will be the first production of Rent by a Central Kentucky theater group. The touring production has visited the Lexington Opera House twice.

Joe Artz, president of KCTC and SummerFest, said that, because it's the first production here, it has attracted regional attention from people interested in now-iconic roles such as Roger, the struggling rocker fighting AIDS; Mimi, the exotic dancer and drug addict also battling HIV, and Angel, the cross-dressing artist who often lives up to his name.

Artz, Clark and Festival director Joe Ferrell emphasized that the weekend workshop was not required to be considered for the cast when auditions are held April 9 to 11.

But they said it was a good chance for them to get a sense of the talent pool available. Clark pointed out that in previous Arboretum productions such as Hair in 2008 and Jesus Christ Superstar in 2004, finding performers with the specific vocal and physical requirements for some of the leading roles has been a challenge.

Not all participants in the workshop will audition.

Taylor Eldred, a senior in the UK voice program who was in Summerfest's 2009 production of Once on This Island, said she has to look at opportunities outside the area for this summer. But the workshop was a chance to sharpen some skills.

"This has been a great opportunity to focus on what I am saying in a song," Eldred said. "So much of the time in opera, the emphasis is on the music."

In one session, Bonner told Eldred she had a gorgeous voice, but had her speak the lines of her song, My White Knight from The Music Man, and challenged her to approach it in different ways.

The workshop was designed to work on all aspects of the musical theater performance: singing, dancing and acting. In addition to director Bonner, veteran tenor Mark Calkins led vocal sessions and Brandon Smith, a Dunbar graduate who has worked with several color guards in the area, led movement classes.

"It's just been a great chance to sharpen up our skills for the auditions," 17-year-old West Jessamine High School Student Bryce Hood said, fresh from rehearsing Rent's title song with Smith.

No matter that, by the time the show goes on, it will be time for shorts and sunscreen.