It was 25 years ago that “Rent” opened on Broadway, creating a cult-like following and ushering in a new generation of theatre fans.
Written and created by Jonathan Larson, who tragically died the night before the show first premiered, the iconic musical follows 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 Bohemian Alphabet City, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.
The groundbreaking show, which earned both a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, will be performed at Signature Theatre from November 2 through January 2 under the direction of Signature’s artistic director, Matthew Gardiner.
Vincent Kempski and Arianna Rosario star as struggling musician Roger Davis and dancer Mimi Marquez, two flawed characters who find love while living with HIV and the ghosts of their pasts. Their duet of “Light My Candle” is one of the most popular amongst Rentheads.
Both actors are thrilled to be a part of Signature’s production.
Back when she was in high school, Rosario’s class was visited by Anthony Rapp, “Rent’s” original Mark Cohen, and he sang through some of the songs with the students, and she’s been a fan of the musical ever since.
Kempski was introduced to the music in high school as well, but really dug his teeth into the songs of “Rent” while doing a Jonathan Larson review in college, and he completely fell in love with it.
So, when Signature announced it would be casting for “Rent,” Kempski was one of the first to submit his self-tape, excited about the possibility of performing the role of Roger on stage, and went through the normal weeks-long audition process. However, Rosario only found out about the show the Friday before rehearsals, but still quickly nabbed the role of the Cat Scratch’s favorite exotic dancer.
Together, Kempski and Rosario dug deep into their characters and found instant chemistry on-stage as the Avenue B lovebirds.
“As a musician myself, separately away from the theatre world, I relate to Roger and his struggle to write things, and I think there’s beauty in that struggle,” Kempski says. “With Roger realizing there are outside sources that can affect him and apply towards the legacy he’s trying to leave and opening his eyes to the world around him. There’s beautiful symbolism there.”
Rosario notes that her character has gone through so much in her short life, and the one thing she wants to do is find love, and that helps audiences connect with Mimi and what she’s going through.
“It’s been really great finding ways to humanize her and make her a bit more relatable in that sense,” she says.
Taking place in Signature’s MAX theatre, the musical will be presented almost diagonally across its black box, offering an almost 360-degree view around the stage. There are seats that are almost on the stage itself, helping audiences get lost in the world of “Rent.”
“There’s a beautiful intimacy about the production and I feel like audiences will see the tears in a way, and feel the emotion in a way that I don’t think they would have seen in a production before,” Kempski says. “People are going to feel like they are in ‘La Vie Bohème’ when it’s happening.”
While Kempski is something of a Signature regular, having appeared in shows like “Assassins” and “A Chorus Line,” this marks Rosario’s first time at the theatre.
“I started out doing concert dance and wanting to be a contemporary ballerina,” she says. “And about 10 years ago, I had a friend of mine convince me to audition for “West Side Story,” and I ended up doing a national tour and stuck with theatre ever since.”
Kempski considers Signature like a second home and the people there like family.
“Signature has a way of expressing their appreciation for what everyone backstage does to make this work, and I don’t really experience that in many places,” he says. “There is just no place like it.”
Signature, and Gardiner in particular, is known for putting his unique stamp on productions and that will be true with “Rent” as well.
“We’re really digging into the cultural socioeconomic political scene that was going on, and it will make people relate more to the characters than what you usually expect,” Kempski says. “This strife is constantly thematic throughout the show and overcoming that and bonding as a community is something timeless, and I think “Rent” tells that in one of the most beautiful ways.”
Signature’s “Rent” also stars Jake Loewenthal as Mark, David Merino as Angel, Josh A. Dawson as Tom Collins, Katie Mariko Murray as Maureen, Ines Nassara as Joanne and Da’Von T. Moody as Benjamin Coffin III.
“Our cast is phenomenal and we have become like our own community, and you see the love behind everyone’s eyes as we are all on stage,” Rosario says. “I think the audience will generally feel the bond we all have, it’s all very special.”
“Rent” will be staged at Signature Theatre from Nov. 2 through Jan. 2. For more information, visit SigTheatre.org.
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