Raising the Rent Again
The John W. Engeman Theatre serves up the Long Island premiere of Jonathan Larson's landmark musical
"It will attract a different demographic than some of our audiences, who tend to be older, but I've also talked to lots of elderly people who told me they really want to see the show. After all, they were once 20 years old, too," says theater owner Kevin O'Neill. "But there are also a lot of people in their 30s and 40s - like me -- who haven't seen the show ever, because life got in their way -- and this is a great opportunity to be exposed to both the show and the theater. I think it's going to be a really fun time!"
In addition to providing enjoyment, attending this production will also allow audiences to participate in a worthy cause, since the theater is donating a portion of each ticket to two local AIDS care charities, the Long Island Association for AIDS Care (LIAAC) and Thursday's Child, with hopes of raising a total of $50,000. "We're a very community-oriented theater," says O'Neill. "Last year, when we did Oliver!, we had people bring non-perishable food for a local pantry. When we got the rights to do Rent, we went to see what organizations would be a good fit. We narrowed on LIIAC quickly; because we knew its CEO, and one of our local legislators, John Cooper, recommended Thursday's Child."
The coveted job of directing the show was given to Engeman veteran Alan Souza. "I really wanted to take this show on. I saw the original Broadway cast, and I've seen a couple of other productions, and I just have a very visceral response to the show," he says. "Still, I've been a little surprised to find out it's already become a sort of sentimental favorite and how much it's become part of popular culture. Someone in Northport said to me they were looking forward to seeing it because they know the song 'Seasons of Love' from their son's show choir."
As much as Souza loves Larson's score, the main reason he wanted the job wasn't the music. "Our artistic director, Richard Dolce, is completely devoted to piece -- and he asked me if I can tell the story, which is what attracted me," he says. "I still see Rent as a period piece -- I just had to explain to some of the young kids in the cast about what ACT-UP was like in the 1990s -- but it remains so relevant today. There's still this sense of a community coming together during times of strife, like now, and there have been plenty of fascinating things to discover in the script as we've taken it apart and interpreted it. In a lot of ways, we feel like we're putting on this show for the first time."
That said, Souza emphasizes that he's creating a relatively traditional production. "This is still the East Village in the 1990s, though I worked with our set designer to make it seem a little more literal than on Broadway; I think it's a cross between original concept and something more unique," he says. "But I don't want to ruin what works."
As for the cast, who were culled from both agent submissions and giant open calls, Souza couldn't be more pleased. "They have tremendous chemistry with each other. I hired a lot of strong actors. I wanted people who are strong individuals and have strong personalities, and I think they make the show rich. But we tried to get as close as to the age of characters as possible. The important thing is they're all believable."
Mike Backes -- who has appeared in three previous Engeman shows and recently starred in the Las Vegas production of Jersey Boys -- plays the lead role of Roger. It's a dream come true for the actor, who auditioned a dozen times for the Broadway production. He has great praise for both Souza's vision and for his co-stars. "I think Lakisha Anne Bowen, who plays Mimi, and I have developed great chemistry; Stanley Bahorek really brings a lot of heart to the role of Mark, and Betsy Morgan is the best Maureen I've ever heard vocally," he says. "We are all committed to really telling this story. There are moments here that Alan has created that are really raw and really intense. We're treating this as a play; we're not just screaming our heads off."