A Nelson troupe is hitting the road with a production of the musical Rent, bringing it to four East Kootenay communities, including Creston on Nov. 13.
The Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is the second show by Nelson-based Elephant Mountain Music Theatre (EMMT), following an acclaimed production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2012.
Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera, La bohème, Rent follows the lives of group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York City’s Lower East Side, under the shadow of poverty, homophobia, addiction, gentrification and the deadly threat of HIV/AIDS.
“They’re people who are trying very hard,” said music director Laura Johnson. “They can’t get off the ground.”
The EMMT team has strong Kootenay roots, with Johnson and her sister Rita Collinson — both born and raised in Creston — and Johnson’s husband, Nelson native Kevin Armstrong, serving, respectively, as music director, production manager and director. Johnson and Collinson have been involved in music all of their lives, and Amrstrong has performed opera in Europe and the Kootenays, both in solo shows and in the opera Khaos, created in Nelson in 2012.
Rent has a rock-based score composed by Jonathan Larson, who died unexpectedly at 35 the night before its Off-Broadway premiere in January 1996. A few months later, it opened on Broadway, where it ran for over 5,000 performances through 2008.
It was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and won four (including best musical, best book of a musical and best score), and is one of only eight musicals (including South Pacific, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and A Chorus Line) to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The show is one that Armstrong has wanted to do for years, after seeing it on Broadway in the 1990s and being blown away by the score.
“I was just blown away from the first song,” he said. “I’d never seen another show like it. Broadway is usually selling glitz and glamour, not dust and dirt.”
Although he’s starred in many musicals and operas, he’s never had the chance to perform in Rent, so he’s pulling double duty in this one, also playing the role of Tom Collins, a philosophy professor with AIDS.
“I don’t make my job easy for myself doing that,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s artistically satisfying because I’m involved in the production on two totally different levels.”
While the show deals with serious social issues without romanticizing them, it isn’t all doom and gloom, with lighthearted moments interspersed. One of those, Johnson’s favourite, is the song Santa Fe, in which the characters dream about starting a new life: “Let’s open up a restaurant in Santa Fe. Oh, sunny Santa Fe would be nice.”
“It’s a kind of ridiculous, kind of fantasy moment,” Johnson said. “They hope for things you never hope for.”
And with a wide range of musical styles, including rock ’n’ roll, tango, R&B and pop, the story is told in a way that will appeal to fans of both rock and musicals.
“The music, if not actually familiar, has a kind of familiar sound,” said Johnson. “You can relate to that musical style.”
“They’re not going to expect what we’re going to offer them — which is a show with a lot of energy, exuberance, youth and volume,” said Armstrong.
WARNING: This show is not appropriate for children under 13 due to language and content. If you are bringing a child, please discuss the show’s content with them before attending.
Rent runs at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 (doors open at 7) at Prince Charles Theatre. Tickets are $18, available at Creative Fix.
—ELEPHANT MOUNTAIN MUSIC THEATRE