Tracey Bonner and Mark Calkins had seen several traditional musical theater vocal auditioners for SummerFest's production of Rent. Then things got a little American Idol on them.
John Dawson, a member of the Lexington-based band Partly Cloudy, stepped into the room. He didn't have 16 bars of prepared sheet music as the others did. He didn't need an accompanist. He just had a song from the rock-opera band Dear Hunter to sing.
And in many ways, he was exactly what Bonner, the stage director, and Calkins, the music director, were looking for.
"You have a real musical soul," Calkins said, taking Dawson through some vocal scales.
Bonner had given him a little direction on how to sing his song a second time, and "he jumped right into that world," she said.
Rent is a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, but it's also a rock show. SummerFest officials hoped to attract local musical theater talent to auditions last weekend, but they also were looking for people like Dawson, rock singers with stage experience that's more oriented to fronting bands.
SummerFest and its predecessor, the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, have had success with rock musicals the past decade, but casting has often been a nail-biter.
"We did five auditions for Hair," Kentucky Classical Theatre Conservatory director Trish Clark said of the 2008 production. In 2004, the Shakespeare Festival put out a specific call for actors to play the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar after several rounds of auditions failed to yield a leading man.
This year, things weren't left to chance. SummerFest and conservatory president Joe Cannon Artz trolled local clubs with business cards, encouraging singers to come out for roles including Roger, the rocker trying to write one great song before the effects of AIDS start to take his life. That attracted Dawson, who was cast as Roger.
Although it's cast for a rock vibe, the Rent ensemble will get a classical experience working with Calkins, an accomplished tenor and an assistant professor of music at Berea College.
"I want to stay faithful to the genre," Calkins says. "But we also want to have good healthy singing. My goal is that we have no major vocal crises during the production."
Bonner says there are challenges to that goal purely in the logistics of SummerFest, which is performed in the middle of a field with all its foliage, in the summer heat. And in Rent, it's easy, even tempting, to overdrive a voice.
Those are challenges facing this cast. But after a weekend of auditions, the SummerFest crew knew they had alleviated one concern.
"With the wealth of talent," that turned out, Artz said midweek, "Tracey has had a lot to work through with her casting."
A wealth of good options is a much better problem to have than no options.