When it comes to “Rent” fans, the seasons of love that it celebrates have never gone out of season.
The 1996 Broadway musical became one of the hottest stage tickets of the 1990s, earning a Tony Award for Best Musical and a 1996 Pulitzer Prize. A 2005 film adaptation followed its successful Broadway run as well as four years of consecutive national tours starting in 2005, regular international tours and a 20th anniversary national tour last year. The national tour visited Waco in 2007, playing to a packed house at the Waco Hippodrome.
“Rent” returns to Waco this month in a three-weekend long Waco Civic Theatre production that caps its 2016-17 season.
Inspired by the Puccini opera “La Boheme” about a group of struggling artists in 19th century Paris, playwright/composer Jonathan Larson crafted a contemporary musical closer to his own experience as a poor writer and actor in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1990s, when AIDS was devastating the city’s artistic community.
Larson’s Bohemians — friends, lovers and ex-lovers — live in a rundown apartment building where they they juggle overdue bills, relationships and the deaths of friends.
There’s struggling filmmaker Mark (Joey Tamayo), who serves somewhat as narrator; his roommate Roger (Garrett McPherson), an HIV-positive rock musician; Mimi (Alexzandria Siprian), an HIV-positive club dancer and drug addict; Tom Collins (LaBraska Washington), a professor with AIDS and former roommate with Mark and Roger; Angel (Buddy Novak), a drag queen with AIDS; Maureen (Emily Perzan), a performance artist and Mark’s ex-girlfriend; Joanne (Charity Gaines), an attorney and Maureen’s current girlfriend; Benny, the landlord and former roommate with Mark, Roger, Tom and Maureen, as well as Mimi’s ex-boyfriend.
Larson himself became part of “Rent’s” story, setting aside a block of heavily discounted front-row tickets for theater fans who couldn’t afford full price. Larson died of an aortic aneurysm days before “Rent” made its Broadway debut.
Phillip Diaz, director of the WCT production and the theater’s box office manager, was in grade school when “Rent” came out, but came under its spell while a high school student. Bullied by others at the time, he sang “La Vie Boheme” as a solo and surprised some classmates with his talent.
Still, the 27-year-old paused when offered the chance to direct the WCT production: Diaz was equally excited about the possibility of acting in one of his favorite shows and playing his favorite character, Mark, awkward and gawky yet connected to everyone. “It’s such a passion project for me,” he admitted.
Directing had unexpected challenges, starting with auditions. “It’s one of the most intense audition processes I’ve been through here. People came out of the woodwork to audition and there were so many potentials in casting,” he said.
Diaz’s final cast pulled talent from outside the Waco area, with two actors from Austin and two from Temple. Backing the onstage company is a five-piece ensemble prepared by music director Tommy Eads.
A Waco workshop last month by original “Rent” actor Wilson Heredia, who played Angel, added crucial insight from his experience.
“I found my vision of the show deepened considerably,” he said.
With characters facing death or social ostracization due to drug use or gender identity, actors sometimes became emotional in rehearsal, the director noted. The play’s message of acceptance, love and the need to live life to its fullest still carries an impact and still needs to be shared, Diaz said.
“Everything from this show has to come from a place of love,” he said. “At the end of the day, these people are just people.”
Language and subject matter make the musical a PG-13 equivalent for audiences. While Larson’s tradition of saving and discounting seats for die-hard fans — “Rentheads” — won’t be in effect for the Waco production, another one will: Names called within the play for a support group for terminal illnesses will be those of local residents and friends who’ve died from AIDS or who’ve supported those who have.
“This show is not afraid to get angry. This show is not afraid to get sad . . . It’s a bohemian play. It doesn’t hold back,” Diaz said.