From the school and community bands to theatre to church choir, sisters Laura Johnson and Rita Collinson kept busy in the performing arts while growing up in Creston.
And they’re still at it today, as part of the team behind a production of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Rent, running in Nelson March 13-15.
It’s no surprise, really, considering their parents are Canyon’s Eric and Lynn Johnson — he a talented drummer and percussionist and she a retired music teacher.
Among the earliest performances they recall is Steamboatin’, set on the Kootenay River and directed by now-retired Adam Robertson Elementary School teacher Frank Goodsir, in which Johnson had a role.
“Our class played the ukulele for it,” said Collinson, who was in Grade 5 at the time.
Johnson also recalled playing Mrs. Claus in Shapin’ up Santa, with Matthew Kitt playing her husband.
They stuck with music and theatre-related pursuits through the rest of school, performing at, of course, Focus on Youth, and in provincial and national competitions.
“David Foster actually came and performed with us, so that was pretty awesome,” said Collinson of one competition.
By Grade 12, she was “the only remaining student who had gone through the whole band system from elementary school.”
In 1994, Johnson headed to university in Lethbridge, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in music, while Collinson went to university in Edmonton in 1996, where she studied neuroscience.
Collinson is still in Edmonton, where she produced shows at the Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival for Johnson’s husband, Kevin Armstrong, a Nelson native who has performed rock and opera several times at Creston’s Snoring Sasquatch and Prince Charles Theatre, both on his own and in the opera Khaos, which was created in Nelson. And she was production manager for Johnson and Armstrong’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which ran in Nelson last spring, a role she was happy to take on again for Rent.
“I like to have things in order and make sure all the details are organized, so when the doors open everything runs as smoothly as possible,” said Collinson.
For Jesus Christ Superstar and for Rent, Johnson and Armstrong — who started a new company, Elephant Mountain Music Theatre, to produce Rent — serve as musical director and director, respectively, guiding both experienced and new performers, 14 of them, through the rehearsal process.
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 Johnson. “They can’t get off the ground.”
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 from 1996-2008.
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.
Armstrong was a huge fan of the show, which is why he suggested it — but Johnson had some catching up to do.
“I was 100 per cent unfamiliar with it before he suggested we do it,” said Johnson, who has taught music at St. Joseph School, and leads a women’s choir and the Nelson Community Band. “I don’t think I’d ever heard Seasons of Love.”
Johnson started by watching the 2005 film version, and later the Broadway production, shot in 2008, to become familiar with the story and music. When she saw the stage version, she realized how heavily the score was cut for the film.
“But I was glad to see the movie because when I saw the Broadway one on film, I was able to follow it,” she said.
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.
Rent runs at 8 p.m. March 13-15 at Nelson’s Capitol Theatre. Tickets are $23 for adults, and $18 for students and seniors, available at www.capitoltheatre.bc.ca or the box office.