Imani Williams, Alexander Gill-Pelchar, Matt Edlind, top, and Rob Tendy, right, are among the stars in the Theatre Department's production of "Rent."
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
A season of love for the cast of ‘Rent’Tweet
Matt Gaska admits that even moments of eye contact among the “Rent” cast members have proven powerful during their performance of the show stopper “Seasons of Love.”
“I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it,” says Gaska, who portrays Tom Collins in the Theatre Department’s production of Jonathan Larson’s Tony-winning rock-opera musical. “It is our anthem of friendship and togetherness. We are trying to tell the (audience): ‘This is our family. This is our form of togetherness. There’s no reason why you can’t have that bond, too.’”
For director Tom Kremer, the camaraderie that has developed both on and off the stage is what makes the “Rent” cast so special.
“It’s their ability to get along and their ability to make friends,” he says. “And that is what happens in the play. This cast came up to the plate and knocked it out of the park.”
That Theatre family atmosphere will be on display at 8 p.m. Nov. 15-16, Nov. 22-23 and 2 p.m. Nov. 24, at the Watters Theater in the Fine Arts Building. Tickets are: general admission, $18; faculty/staff/seniors, $16; and students (with ID), $10.
Inspired by Puccini’s “La Bohème,” Larson’s musical tells the story of a group of friends living in New York City’s East Village. Some are struggling with AIDS and addiction. Some struggle to make ends meet. Some struggle with love. All are struggling to stay together. The show debuted on Broadway in 1996 and later became a movie that featured much of the original cast.
“Rent” is “the Olympics of musicals,” Kremer says.
“It’s wall-to-wall music,” says Kremer, who is a professor of acting and directing in theatre at Binghamton University. “I think if you added up all of the dialogue, you’d get about a page and a half! It is an incredible challenge, but it’s good to do it. It resonates with what’s going on in today’s world: the economic situation with the income gaps. Healthcare. That all started back in the 1990s. It is good for today’s world.
“The political atmosphere now is so polarized that one feels the community of our country is splintering into 1,000 alienated people,” he adds. “This play is about people who are living in an alienated world and find a way to come together and form a family. That family helps them survive.”
“Rent” is unusual because it features eight principal characters whose stories intertwine, Kremer says. Finding the right eight students to handle the show’s more than two-dozen songs made for a difficult audition process.
“I said: ‘The first thing we are going for is the singing,’ Kremer recalls. “’We’ll take care of the acting afterwards.’ I just got lucky, because they all turned out to be great.”
The eight students cast are: Imani Williams as dancer Mimi Marquez; Alexander Gill-Pelchar as musician Roger Davis; Matt Edlind as filmmaker Mark Cohen; Matthew Pedersen as drag queen Angel Dumott Schunard; Rob Tendy as landlord Benny Coffin; Adriana Caminero as lawyer Joanne Jefferson; Danielle Nigro as performance artist Maureen Johnson; and Gaska as teacher Tom Collins. The production also features other cast members and singers, a musical director, choreographer, costume, set and lighting designers, and musicians.
For Edlind, the Theatre Department’s decision to perform “Rent” helped him decide to pursue onstage work.
“I did a lot of theater in high school, but here I was already involved in a lot of things,” the sophomore says. “But I learned last year that ‘Rent’ would be performed, and someone who heard me sing told me to audition. She said: ‘You have to do this show!’ It was the right thing for me to do.”
Gaska says “Rent” was one of the first Broadway albums he “obsessed over.”
“It probably was the first show that I fell in love with,” he says. “I think that paved the way for me wanting to pursue this career in some capacity. When it was announced (at Binghamton), I thought: ‘I have to audition.’ This is music from our childhood. We were raised on this music. It’s a pop-rock show. To be part of something that has had a direct influence on what I want to do is fantastic.”
The show presents several challenges for each of the cast members, starting with keeping the dramatic action moving forward through song.
“You can’t play with the text like you can in an ordinary show,” says Tendy, a junior. “For example, in ‘Hairspray,’ there is dialogue until something big happens. Then there is a song about it. ‘Rent’ is songs the entire time. You need to be specific about what you are doing. When you find the meaning you are trying to get across, you have to play with 1,000 different movements and motions. You can’t respond with text. It has to go through your body.”
Working with Kremer has also been a special experience, the cast members say. As Mimi – an HIV-positive exotic dancer – Williams says she is appreciative that Kremer stresses that they “keep playing and be moment to moment.”
“Staying moment to moment and taking what is given to you is why I want to stay in acting,” the junior says. “That’s what keeps it fun and alive and keeps me coming back for more. … It’s fantastic for me to work with Tom. I learn new and interesting things every day about my character. For me, it’s about playing and having fun.”
As the cast members prepare to sing about “525,600 minutes” in “Seasons of Love,” they credit Kremer with creating an environment that has allowed them to become close-knit for at least that long.
“I see (the cast) for four hours of rehearsals a day and eight hours over the weekend,” says Pedersen, a sophomore. “I still end up wanting to spend more time with them. We’ve done such a great job of making this a real family. I’ve only been with them for two months, but I can’t imagine my life without them.”