Jonathan Larson’s musical “Rent” about young artists struggling in New York – with its grunge-rock numbers and, above all, the heavy weight of HIV that weighs on most of the characters – is sometimes characterized, by admirers like detractors, like much of its time, a cultural touchstone of the 90s. (It premiered off and then on Broadway in 1996.)
But there’s nothing dated about the theme of people trying to live out their creative best versions of themselves amidst forces that set them back, whether it’s an epidemic, bigotry or poverty – it is universal at all times and in all places. (“Rent” was, after all, a loose reinterpretation of Puccini’s opera “La Bohème,” circa 1898.)
“I think the underlying theme is very relevant,” said Alexander Ramos, of Rochester, an Alaska native who plays Angel – perhaps the emotional heart of the show – in an upcoming Theater 444 production of “ Rent” in Geneva. “A lot of us form stigmas about things we don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, or are afraid to understand. … None of us will fully understand. It’s not our job to understand or agree with everything, but it’s our job to understand that people are different and to be kind.
And while an HIV diagnosis isn’t necessarily as bleak as it was in the 1990s (or especially the 1980s) thanks to advances in medicine, it’s still serious and life-threatening. But it’s also not lost on the director and cast of Theater 444 that they’re putting on this show in the midst of a pandemic — one that has claimed more than 6 million lives worldwide.
“We had a long conversation about how COVID relates to the sentiment of this time,” director and 444 Theater founder Pam Rapoza said — how, at first, “no one knew what it was.” In both cases, there were mistakes and errors in judgement; the devastation, at least initially, seemed akin to AIDS at its peak. “It was very scary at least for the first year,” she said, noting that the COVID experience provides something of a “point of contact” for the audience.
Rapoza and Theater 444 had been wanting the rights to perform “Rent” for quite a while, she said. They relished the challenges of mature themes, putting together a diverse cast – and translating the show, known for an elaborate bohemian setting, to the contours of the small space of Théâtre 444 in the Geneva Community Center, where the show will be presented. in August 11-14. They will present it like a black box, with an immersed audience — “the cast is very close to the audience and very intimate. The framework is going to force artists to be very vulnerable,” Rapoza said. As for the audience? “Even though they’ve seen ‘Rent’ before, they haven’t seen it that way,” she said.
Ramos’ character Angel – a drag queen, street drummer and generally kind soul who lives with AIDS – is one of a tight but fractured group of friends in Manhattan’s East Village, most of ‘among them being artists or performers and many of whom are HIV positive as they struggle to get by, to maintain their creativity, to find or keep love and life… and to avoid paying rent . Winner of multiple Tony Awards in 1996, including Best Musical and Best Original Score, “Rent” lasted 12 years on Broadway and inspired a feature film with many original cast members. His best-known song is probably the soaring, gospel-infused “Seasons of Love,” about how to measure the 525,600 minutes of a year in his life – sunsets? Conflicts? Coffee cups? (The answer: “Measure in love.”)
Rapoza – a veteran of various area performance groups such as the Geneva Theater Guild and Seneca Community Players, and a jury member of the Theater Association of New York State – founded Theater 444 in 2016. Since then, it has presented material both mature (“Little Miss Sunshine, “Spring Awakening”) and family-friendly (“A Year with Frog & Toad”). The pandemic has forced the company to get creative with its offerings, ranging from “The Tempest” from immersive Zoom comedy to filming a live performance of “Daddy Longlegs” to simultaneously live and virtual broadcasts.
The cast includes Dylan DeGeorge, of Canandaigua; Ronnie Colon, from Geneva; Nick Bessette, of Auburn; Alexander Ramos, of Rochester; Enoch Martin, of Canandaigua; Kaylie Barbosa, from Gananda; Kristina Abbott, of Auburn; Allauna Overstreet-Gibson, of Geneva; Abigail Adams, of Rochester; Jennifer Walczak, from Geneva; Evelyn Balzer of Seneca Falls; Katie Hockey, of Seneca Falls; Dominic Vassallo, of Phelps; Owen Wawrzaszek, from Geneva; and JA Brown, of Geneva.
The Théâtre 444 production of “Rent” will be presented at 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday August 11-13 and at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Sunday August 14 at the Geneva Community Center, 160, chemin Carter, Geneva. General admission is $25 at the door, $20 presale on theatre444.com.
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FRONT-ROW SEAT is a column that showcases the region’s art, music, theatre, film and general creative scene. If you are a musician with an upcoming live online performance or album release; or if you have arts/entertainment information to report, please send your information to L. David Wheeler at [email protected]