(The cast of Cabrillo Stage Summer Musical Festival’s “Rent,” opening on June 28. Photo by Jana Marcus)
APTOS — When the rock-opera musical “Rent” first opened in New York City in 1996, it wasn’t quite the celebration many had imagined.
The show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, had died suddenly just a day before the show’s Off-Broadway premiere, leaving friends and the theater world devastated.
Despite this, the production eventually did open. It then went on to be one of the most groundbreaking and longest-running musicals to ever hit Broadway.
Now, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning show is coming to Santa Cruz County as part of the Cabrillo Stage Summer Musical Festival.
“Rent” is a re-imaging of Puccini’s opera “La Bohéme,” following a group of young artists struggling to survive a 1990s Bohemian lifestyle in New York City’s East Village under the shadow of poverty and HIV/AIDS.
Cabrillo Stage Artistic Director Jon Nordgren admitted that despite wanting to put on “Rent” for years, it was never the right time — until now.
“I’ve realized this show’s importance,” Nordgren said. “Working on ‘Rent’ is a learning experience for everyone — actors, directors, the backstage crew. It’s a tall order.”
Cabrillo Stage’s production is directed by Dustin Leonard, who directed the company’s most recent productions of “Oliver” and “West Side Story.” Michael McGushin is musical director and conductor, and Brance Sourza serves as choreographer.
“Rent” also features some local acting talent. This includes Edie Flores of Watsonville, who is part of the ensemble cast and is a swing for Vinh Nguyen’s role as Angel.
“[It’s] nothing short of a blessing,” Flores said. “Nothing beats singing alongside my ‘Rent’ family during ‘Seasons of Love’ and ‘I’ll Cover You.’”
Flores admits it’s been a challenge to balance real-life experience with such an intense storyline. But, he says, he and his fellow actors all agree on the importance of bringing the story to life.
“I truly believe that ‘Rent’ is a story that will continue to be timeless,” Flores said. “Acceptance, diversity … and love are what I hope audience members experience and take with them.”
Sean Okunieicz, who plays the part of Mark Cohen, had similar things to say about the show.
“I hope people walk out of this show with a better sense of empathy for others; a willingness to understand people different from them,” he said.
Okunieicz also mentioned how satisfied he was with the cast’s chemistry.
“‘Rent’ is one of those shows where, pretty much any cast member could have a lead role,” he said. “You need a lot of stamina. I’m surrounded by so much talent on stage — it’s amazing. We’re gelling really well.”
“Rent” will be followed by a string of performances of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” starting in late July. Nordgren admits he’s encountered some resistance of this year’s choices, with one colleague wondering if some themes present in “Rent” and “The Producers” might hit too close to home in such a volatile political and social climate.
“But actually, that was what made me realize I’d made the right choice,” he said. “It’s the perfect time for these shows. People are still being made fun of for being gay, and dealing with sexual harassment, and encountering racism … for art to take that and place it in the abstract — that’s powerful. That gets through to people.”
The Cabrillo Stage Summer Musical Festival’s production of “Rent” will run June 28-July 15 at Cabrillo College’s Crocker Theater in Aptos. Tickets range in price from $25 to $45 depending on patron age, show date and seating. To order and for discount information, visit cabrillostage.com or call 479-6154.