Living for Today • RENT

Pit & Balcony Stages the 20th Anniversary Celebration of this Tony Award Winning Broadway Musical May 13-14 & 20-22

    icon Apr 28, 2016
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For their final series of performances in their 2016 season, Pit & Balcony Theatre is taking a walk on the wild side with a highly anticipated production of the controversial Tony Award winning Broadway musical RENT, which is also celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year and will be staged during a series of performances running May 13-15 and May 20-22nd.

RENT is a full-blown Rock Musical with music & lyrics composed by the immensely talented and short-lived playwright Jonathan Larson. Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La boheme, it tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in New York City’s East Village in the thriving days of the bohemian atmosphere of Alphabet City back in the days when HIV/AIDS was beginning to cast its dark shadow.

The show's creator, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly of an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, the night before the Off-Broadway premiere. The show went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, and the production was a hit. The musical moved to Broadway's larger Nederlander Theatre on April 29, 1996, where it received critical acclaim and won a Tony Award for Best Musical. The production closed on Broadway in 2008 after enjoying a 12-year run.

For director Chad William Baker, what distinguishes RENT from the vast array of Broadway musicals is the unorthodox and non-traditional posture it occupies within the lexicon of American theatre. “When RENT first hit the stage it was considered to be half-musical and half-rock concert,” he reflects, “and I feel it did a lot to introduce audiences to more serious subject matter and laid the groundwork for musicals such as Spring Awakening and Next to Normal, which owe a lot to what RENT did in terms breaking down barriers on Broadway in terms of style.”

“What I like about RENT within this style of musical is that its not preachy or heavy-handed, but very relatable,” continues Baker. “Obviously the topic of AIDS is a large part of it, but more important to me is the idea of living for today, which I think makes it more hopeful in a way. There’s a lot of heavy-handed subjects in this show, but the tenor throughout is very positive, regardless of what’s happening in the show, the thrust is to always look towards the future.”

As a director, what are some of the themes Baker is trying to emphasize and focus upon with the work? “I think the idea of acceptance is the main theme, which is also a common theme throughout all the shows Pit & Balcony has produced this season,” reflects Baker.

“Mainly it’s based around a group comprised of three main couples – two of them are gay couples; yet within the context of the show, it’s never brought up. It’s simply who they’re with and we don’t even question that. There is an implicit acceptance the same as there is with the characters who are HIV positive. It’s just who they are. It’s their life and what they’re dealing with. And the same is true with the drug addicted characters. They are struggling with something, but we accept and love them as they work through their problems.  There’s that core of acceptance within the group that’s represented in the play that is the biggest theme that I like in the show and am drawn towards.”

With a theatre degree from SVSU under his belt, RENT will be the first musical that Baker has directed; and the fact its also his favorite musical makes the task that much easier. “I’ve always wanted to tackle this production and feel comfortable directing it because I know it so well.  We had a really big turnout for auditions and have a big female turnout for every show we do; but unfortunately, this show doesn’t have a lot of female characters involved, so the hardest decision was with selecting the female roles, as we some very powerful female actors turn up.”

Key roles in RENT are being performed by Donte Green, Brad Phillips, Steven Holty, Cole Krueger, Kale Schafer, Claudia Marsh, and Danessa Hellus, who also performed in the P&B productions of Next to Normal & Spring Awakening.

According to Baker, the biggest challenge is that RENT is a completely sung-through musical that works almost like an opera. “Some consider it a Rock Opera and there are snippets of dialogue here and there, but mostly it goes from song to song,” he notes. “The sheer time it takes to teach the music and keep one’s stamina up is daunting, because the music is the driving force behind the show.”

“The character of Angel has AIDS and is also a drag queen,” relates Baker, “while the character of Roger also has AIDS and is very sad and depressed about his life; yet Angel is the complete opposite of that. Even though he has AIDS, he is embracing his life and living it entirely how he wants to live it and enjoying himself. A lot of the funniest parts in the play come from him – a character you would think would have it the hardest with a lot of things pulling him down – yet I think he drives the heart of the show and brings the audience into the show.  I think he has the biggest heart of all these characters.”

RENT is a musical full of irony and conflict, which also augments its theatrical power. “The character of Becky used to be in the group and married into a rich family,” notes Baker, “so you have one conflict between living the Bohemian lifestyle for your art versus given the opportunity to make more money and live a 9-5 life of luxury that none of these characters want to do.  Some are more drawn to it than others; but the biggest conflict is about living your life and realizing what you have in life is great and you should recognize everything positive around you and live for today.”

“As a director, I’m trying to bring out the relationships a little more in this production,” states Baker. “Because it was on Broadway 20 years ago the gay and lesbian couples have always played it a little bit safe and never seemed like that were involved in a romantic and passionate relationship, so I’m trying to establish those elements a little more in this production.  I’m trying to show why those relationships work and show the audience the strength of their relationships, which is a suggestion that came out of the actors performing these roles. Something I agree with entirely.”

For actor Donte Green, who tackles the pivotal role of Roger Davis, RENT is a very serious show but also fun in the sense it challenges him to deal with a role he is not accustomed. “I’m not a recovering drug addict and I don’t have AIDS and I don’t know many people who are,” he explains, “so this role is very challenging for me and has resulted in me doing research into HIV and also about being a drug addict and recovering from those withdrawals. Then I need to put that part of my life behind me and look forward, plus my character was just in a long relationship where his girlfriend killed herself because of AIDS and the last thing she told me is that we both have it, so the play is very mature in that sense.”

“I’m still in college and still learning different things about theatre, so RENT is a very challenging show for me. The character I play is 24 and I’m 20 so I actually have to fast-forward and do research, which is good training for me and my future as an actor. I’m not always going to have a role that fits me and my familiarities.”

As for Brook Gomez, who tackles the role of Mimi Marquez, she feels RENT is pretty relevant to everybody. “Everybody has experienced love and loss in some respect,” she reflects. “So the key to me is how we need to focus upon and celebrate life and live in the moment and be here today. Don’t regret things from the past but live in the ‘Now’ and be appreciative of life. But I also like the fact that something is driving each character in this play.”

“I’m usually playing Disney-like characters in plays like White Christmas and Beauty and the Beast, and now I’m playing a stripper who does heroin,” she laughs, “and those two arenas are not the best to research. I don’t want to dig into that world too much, but I do want to be true to character. I guess the hardest part for me is switching from a beauty gown to something a little smaller.”

Brad Phillips takes on the role of Mark Cohen and comments how “Despite the drama and relationship intrigue what I like about RENT is that it’s not a dark play, even through the death and drug addiction and impending doom, the message of the show is not doom and gloom. There’s a lot of life in the show and people looking forward to things that they do have going for them. These characters are poor but not nearly as poor as the people living in Tent City outside their window; and even some of those people you see making fun of the police and random rich people they run into on the street.”

“Tomorrow isn’t promised for any of us,” concludes Donte. “Even if you’re poor and going through struggles, you should be happy for what you’re given in life because you may not have the same thing tomorrow. That goes for rich people waking up bankrupt tomorrow, or any type of challenge. Live life in the NOW.”

“I want to make my character as believable as possible and sometimes musical are very ‘in your face’, but with so many serious things and situations going on in this show, it has to be believed and not over-acted. I don’t want to pretend I’m a recovering drug addict; I want the audience to believe it, but have to be careful not to overdo it so this core message is truly delivered out to the audience.”

RENT: The Broadway Musical runs from May 13-15 & May 20-22nd at Pit & Balcony Theatre, 805 N. Hamilton St., Saginaw. Phone 989-754-6587 or visit for tickets.




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