Stage & Dance

Life imitates art as cast of 'Rent' forges emotional connections

Jessica Lucas as Mimi and Johnny Dawson as Rodger in SummerFest's "Rent." Lucas has wanted to play Mimi since she first saw "Rent" when she was 15. SummerFest presents Jonathan Larson's "Rent" July 21-25 at the Arboretum, 500 Alumni Drive in Lexington, Ky. The photos were taken at the company's first complete run-through of the show on July 11, 2010 in the movement studio of the University of Kentucky Fine Arts Building in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Rich Copley | staff.
Jessica Lucas as Mimi and Johnny Dawson as Rodger in SummerFest's "Rent." Lucas has wanted to play Mimi since she first saw "Rent" when she was 15. SummerFest presents Jonathan Larson's "Rent" July 21-25 at the Arboretum, 500 Alumni Drive in Lexington, Ky. The photos were taken at the company's first complete run-through of the show on July 11, 2010 in the movement studio of the University of Kentucky Fine Arts Building in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Rich Copley | staff. staff

The group forms a circle when everyone has arrived, and Brandon Smith leads the affirmation.

There's only us

There's only this

Forget regret

Or life is yours to miss

No other road

No other way

No day but today

It sounds like group therapy because the words are from Life Support, a scene in the musical Rent set in a support group for people living with AIDS and HIV.

The group that has assembled in the movement studio at the University of Kentucky Fine Arts Building is the cast for SummerFest's edition of the beloved show, the first locally produced version of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical from the mid-1990s.

Many of the Lexington cast members could have recited the affirmation from Life Support years before getting parts in the show. For the most part they desperately wanted to be in Rent, and now they are thrilled to be in it together.

"It's incredible how close this cast has become," says Katie Berger, who plays several roles, including schlockmeister TV producer Alexi Darling. "We are all like best friends, and it's this type of show that does it. I don't think this could happen with a different kind of show."

Jessica Lucas, who plays one of the leads, HIV-positive stripper Mimi, adds, "And that's so weird, because we are all so different. And Nick (Vannoy, who plays HIV-positive philosopher Tom Collins) pointed out we are such a diverse group, and for us to get along this well. ... We're a rainbow of gay, straight, bisexual, black, white and everything."

Director Tracey Bonner says she realized from the beginning that she needed to make Rent's cast diverse and bring it together.

"Sometimes with shows, you can just bring in the dancers and bring in the singers, and everybody does their thing," Bonner says. "But with a show like this, there is so much connectivity and so much support that is required, I couldn't let them not care about each other."

Even before it opened in New York, Rent was an emotional story.

It was the fulfillment of Jonathan Larson's dream to create a Broadway musical. But he never saw the wish come true because he died of an aortic dissection, a tear in the walls of the aorta, the night of the final dress rehearsal for the off- Broadway production. It opened the next day, Jan. 25, 1996. Three months later, Rent made the move to Broadway, where it played for 12 years and launched the careers of Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs, among others.

During that time, the show developed the sort of following usually reserved for rock bands. Rentheads, as the show's most ardent fans are known, traveled to see the show at New York's Nederlander Theatre and on national tours.

Based on Giacomo Puccini's opera La Bohème, Rent tells the story of a group of artists living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1990s. They all struggle with poverty, and several are living with AIDS, a disease that was tantamount to a death sentence at that time. Over the years, particularly when the show went on tour and was produced by some high schools, it generated controversy for its frank portrayal of sexuality and drug use.

But many of those facets of the show are why people love it, including the SummerFest cast.

Emanuel Williams, who plays HIV-positive drag queen Angel, recalls his aunt buying the movie for him when he was in middle school.

"Just seeing the show, and seeing characters that were gay and people that were OK with it, the show means a lot to me, and I feel something every time I see it," he says.

SummerFest's artistic director, Joe Ferrell, says the theme of acceptance in Rent worked perfectly with the rest of the shows in the festival this season — The Merchant of Venice, which looks at religious intolerance, and Pride and Prejudice, which explores class conflict.

The show also fits well with the modus operandi of musicals at SummerFest and before that, the Lexington Shakespeare Festival. Since first bringing musicals to The Arboretum's stage in 2004 with Jesus Christ Superstar, there's been only one warhorse show, 2005's Fiddler on the Roof. The rest of the musical offerings have been contemporary shows such as 2008's Hair. Ferrell says that's by design.

"We have a company in town that produces those traditional musicals, and they do a great job," Ferrell says, referring to Paragon Music Theatre, which presents The Sound of Music later this month. "Shows like Rent show what is happening with musicals, and that they aren't all big spectacles."

Having been around for more than 15 years, Rent has been part of many cast members' lives as long as they have been aware of musicals.

"I've always wanted to play Mimi ... it's awkward for a 15-year-old to want to play a stripper junkie with AIDS," Lucas says. "It's just now hitting me that I'm going to be performing this stuff in front of a huge crowd of people."

Berger says, "The first time we started staging La Vie Bohème (one of Rent's signature songs), I said, 'Oh my God, this is real. We are learning La Vie Bohème choreography. This is real life.' It's just crazy."

Chip Becker, who plays the filmmaker Mark, is at age 40 a bit older than most of the cast, but he is no less enthusiastic about getting to perform a show he has loved since seeing it on Broadway.

"There's something about the energy to the show, that just going through the process, you get so connected to everybody," he says. "That's the biggest surprise, that we're here and we're doing it, and we're getting to say something so important."

Berger, the chorus member, says, "The affirmation you saw us all doing, the 'no day but today' part, is such a cool thing to me because it's a message we can all share and go out and live every single day."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments