Rock musical 'Rent' opens at Firehouse Arts Center
Based on 'La boheme,' production wrings emotions from actors, audience
The Firehouse Arts Center is on fire these days with rockin' music, energized and evocative dancing, and high emotion. Last weekend the Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre opened its production of "Rent," Jonathan Larson's 1997 rock musical based on Puccini's classic opera, "La boheme."
This version tells the story of impoverished artists and musicians struggling to survive not in Paris but in New York's Lower East Side. While there is no tuberculosis, four of the main characters have AIDS or are HIV positive.
"I was lucky to see it in 1997. It literally changed my life," Director Jasen Jeffrey said in a Q&A with the cast after Sunday's matinee. "Everyone on that stage was myself or one of my friends. I thought, 'How did Jonathan Larson know my life?'"
The play is still relevant, he added, and will be until a cure is found for HIV-AIDS.
Half the audience remained for the discussion with the actors and director, and comments were highly laudatory for the production -- the singing, the dancing and the emotions they evoked. At the final bow, Robert Lopez, who plays Roger, the HIV-positive songwriter who wants to write the perfect love song before he dies, had tears streaming down his face.
"When my cast was done, I warned them we're going to go to some of those places, raw, hard to go to. I had to get the trust and respect of the actors to go that far," Jeffrey said.
"This is my third time directing 'Rent' in the Bay Area," he added, noting that the three auditions drew close to one thousand people from all over the country. "It was very difficult and very easy casting. You know in your heart when you have the right people at the right place at the right time."
Musical director Sean Kana praised the cast members for their work with the demanding songs.
"The show is so harsh on vocal chords," Kana said, and the cast worked hard to keep the "vocal integrity of show."
Alan Mingo Jr., a member of Actor's Equity Association, played the lead part of Tom Collins, a teacher and computer-age philosopher. He also played the role on Broadway.
"When the show came out, everyone lost their voice," Mingo recalled about the Broadway production. "There were two people for every major role in the wings. It's so vocally hard, we had to hold the hand of the musical director. He told us, 'It's not about the notes, it's about the beast.' That made it so much easier."
This production has more dancing than did Broadway's, Jeffrey pointed out, with a clever tango and lots of rock. Choreographer Nicole Helfer talked about a dreamlike dance sequence where the street people were trying to escape their misery.
"I told them to try to get out of a door that kept getting further and further away," Helfer said.
The flamboyant drag queen Angel, played by Equity actor Adam Theodore Barry, has especially dazzling songs and dances, including a back flip and a jump onto a table -- in very high heels.
"At the audition I really wanted the part so I did the back flip," explained Barry, who is performing the role for the second time, but including the flip for the first time.
"They are the same shoes -- and the same table jump," he added.
Taylor Jones, who plays Mimi, has done the role before but said this time she is older and a lot has happened in her life.
"I could bring more to the character doing it now," she said. "It's scary to go to these places -- but it's cleansing."
"Rent" is the ninth longest running show in Broadway history and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Musical. Jeffrey brings a fresh vision with the Pleasanton production.
"It's about true relationships, and how they ultimately end up changing our lives," he said.
"I'm so happy you brought this to our community," a woman in the audience told them. "I saw it in San Francisco, and your production is far, far better."
The cast agreed the musical played better on the smaller stage close to the audience.
"What's beautiful about the Firehouse is that it is so close, intimate," Jeffrey had said before the show opened. "It makes all the emotion the actors will be doing that much more powerful."
"Thank you for bringing the show here to Pleasanton," another woman remarked. "Eight years ago my brother became my sister. We are all in the human race together."
"It's about purity of people's hearts -- to find people in the community to help them get through it," Jeffrey said.
"We had a very short time to bring this emotional package to the stage," he noted, "two weeks, then two days for lights and sets. We had to work as a full team, it was really collaborative. Some didn't even know the music."
Other leads are Andrew Humann as Mark, Roger's roommate and a filmmaker whose heart has been broken by Maureen; Allison Meneley as Maureen, an actress who left Mark for Joanne; Estelle Fernandez as Joanne, a lawyer; and Phillip Davis as Benny, the landlord who wants last year's rent.
"Those emotions -- you guys were incredible," an audience member told them.
Experience it for yourself, through Feb. 10 at the Firehouse Arts Center.
'La boheme' -- set in 1997
What: "Rent," music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Who: Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre
Where: Firehouse Arts Center, 4444 Railroad Ave., Pleasanton
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2, and Sunday, Feb. 10
Tickets: 931-4848 or www.pcrtproductions.org