Rent-heads unite: VOS tackles iconic rock musical

Subject matter of HIV, poverty, gentrification, tent city will resonate with Victoria audiences

Doug Crockett avoided getting involved with any production of Rent for a long time.

Until agreeing to direct the upcoming Victoria Operatic Society version of the rock musical, he had steered clear of this wildly successful theatre piece. Its subject matter: struggling young artists battling poverty, the gentrification of their neighbourhood and the overarching spectre of AIDS, felt too close to home for him.

“I lived in Los Angeles and in San Francisco during the 80’s and 90’s,” he says. “I lost a lot of friends to AIDS during that time, and when I first heard about VOS doing Rent, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to be involved.”

As he thought about it, Crockett realized he had a lot to offer the talented cast, doing a show he has always admired. “Among the eight principal actors, I think the oldest is 34. With such a young cast, they’re not going to have a lot of references [to that time].”

That scenario may play in this production’s favour, says one of the leads.

Liam McDonald, left, plays Mark Cohen and Sean Baker plays Roger Davis in the Victoria Operatic Society production of Rent, playing at the McPherson Playhouse Nov. 23 to Dec. 2. Photo by Jesse Polito/courtesy VOS

“None of us were really alive or have personal experiences with the direct subject matter,” notes Liam McDonald, who plays Mark Cohen, a young filmmaker and narrator of the show. “I think we can draw things from our own experiences and tell this story in a way that does it justice, but also puts a new, fresh spin on some of the moments.”

There’s recognition amongst the cast and crew that there will be “Rentheads” in the crowd. Those are fans for whom this musical is etched on their soul – they’ve memorized the storyline, know all the iconic moments and can recite the dialogue word for word. They see it every chance they get, from live productions to the 2005 feature film.

McDonald is excited for those audience members.

“To bring the elements that are always there is important,” he says. “But what I’m excited about is to twist the things that we can put our spin on, and to sort of make the parts that we think are important, important.”

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Sean Baker, who plays dying rock musician Roger Davis, who is Mark’s roommate and is HIV positive, hasn’t performed in Rent before but saw a production in New York a dozen years ago. He’s witnessed and been part of a phenomenon that somewhat parallels the emotion-filled story line.

Where it sometimes takes time together for a cast to bond, this group has grown tight quickly, he says.

“The richness of the relationships is already present in the show itself, but also because we’ve grown so close already, that adds to that depth of [the on-stage] relationships.”

The director and two actors, who last worked together on Urinetown: The Musical at Langham Court Theatre this year, say the attraction of Rent was evident, with 98 actors auditioning for one of 19 roles.

Crockett says Rent is also likely to bring in a younger audience, given its continued popularity and the youthful characters. It also may resonate with Victoria theatre goers familiar with the subjects of a tent city, poverty, gentrification of neighbourhoods and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The VOS production of Rent runs Nov. 23-Dec. 2 at the McPherson Playhouse. Tickets start at $21.75 each, available online at rmts.bc.ca, by phone at 250-386-2121 or by dropping in to the Royal or McPherson theatre box offices.

editor@mondaymag.com

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