The District Theatre kicks off its fifth season this weekend with Jonathan Larson's powerful pop-rock opera "Rent," last done in April 2010 by the company, when it was the former Harrison Hilltop Theatre.
Artistic director Tristan Tapscott -- who said the show basically tells his own personal story -- returns as aspiring filmmaker Mark. Also reprising their roles are Sara King as Joanne and Joey Baez as Angel, but the space and staging are new, and director Bryan Tank recently said even the same actors bring new perspective to their parts.
"l knew we could do something a little different, rather than just recycle what they had done. We can try a fresh approach, look at it in new ways," Mr. Tank (a frequent District star who's directed "Best Man" and "Next to Normal" there) said.
Based on Puccini's opera "La Boheme," the 1996 musical tells the story of seven friends in the AIDS-ravaged New York City of the 1990s. They share a struggle to support themselves and celebrate their lives in spite of crises that confront them -- from shifting romantic entanglements and preserving their artistic integrity to coping with a disease that is threatening almost everyone they know.
"It's been three years and I've grown as an artist," Mr. Tapscott said of the last time he did "Rent." "There are things I can appreciate more than I did then." Of Mark, he said:"If there's one character that I'm most like in the history of musical theater, it's that character. Roger sings about him, 'Mark lives for his work.' I give up pretty much everything I have for that."
"The reason the show means a lot to me is it's the very essence of what we're about," Mr. Tapscott said of his 55-seat theater. "On paper, we shouldn't be open, we shouldn't be able to survive. The reason it does is you have this group of friends that comes together, over and over, to give the Quad-Cities a beautiful piece of work -- whether it's 'Xanadu' or it's 'Rent.' People are coming together, against all odds. That's how great art is created."
"'Rent' is one of those shows that shouldn't have succeeded. It's an amazing show, but it had everything working against it," Mr. Tank said. "It's a high-concept rock musical, takes place in 1,000 locations over the course of a year, with 16 people, based on an opera. For it to make it to Broadway and to find resonance with an entire generation..."
"It kind of defined my adolescence," he said, noting he first heard the cast recording his freshman year in high school in Geneseo.
Same forChris Causer, a 26-year-old New York-based actor who plays Roger. He worked with Mr. Tapscott in Circa '21's "Miracle on 34th Street" over the holidays and stayed here to perform his "dream role."
"It kind of taught you who you wanted to accept in life, and who you wanted to be," Mr. Causer said, noting he wore out the original cast album when he was in middle school. "These were all your best friends on this recording. When you found out who they were, it made you want to be that lifestyle -- that open, that loving."
"It's just about love, about people. It's all about the drive and desire they all have," he said. "All artists, they want to soar, like these eight people, they all want to soar. They're looking for this way out in life."
Mr. Causer thinks it was fate that brought him to Rock Island for this show.
"I'm a firm believer of all things falling into place. I don't want this to fly by. Because it will, I'm trying to take every moment I can," he said. "It really means so much to me. I lost a really good buddy three days ago (in a car accident), and it just made the whole show -- why don't we live like this every day?"
Mr.Tapscott said of his character observing others: "It's how much what we're doing means to so many people. It's almost borderline therapeutic."
The story in "Rent" has more resonance today because of society's greater acceptance of same-sex relationships, Mr. Tank said.
"I hope that it will help an audience coming in seeing the show be more open-minded," he said. "In the Lower East Side in the '90s, having a drag queen with a gay man, I don't think anybody would have batted an eye, but in the Midwest in the '90s -- in the Midwest today, people would. What's happened socially since then, I hope our audience will have our audience have an open mind. But people who come see 'Rent' know what they're in for."
The local cast includes Kelly Lohrenz as Mimi, Cara Chumbley as Maureen, James Fairchild as Tom, Andrew Cole as Benjamin, as well as ensemble members Matt Mercer, Josh Melon, Bobby Duncalf, Nick Munson, Erin Clark, Wendy Czekalski, Cindy Ramos-Parmley and Kat Martin.
"I fell in love with this vibe here," said Mr. Causer, who is directing a small production of "Macbeth" in April in New York. "Some shows, you just come to work. This show, it doesn't feel like an office. Those shows are not normal either. People click and want to spend time together."
"Rent" has extra emotional power because Mr. Larson (its creator) died suddenly Jan. 25, 1996, the night before the show's off-Broadway premiere, from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. He was 35."Rent" won the Tony for Best Musical, the Pulitzer Prize, and ran on Broadway for 12 years.
At 31, Mr. Tank prefers directing it to being in it. "I love being able to sit down with Chris or Tristan, whoever in the cast and be able to be part of all of it, and witness it coming to life," he said. "That's resonating more with me that way than being on the other side."
The cast and theater live by the show'smotto, "No day but today."
"In a business like this, you're never sure when the bottom's going to drop out," Mr. Tapscott said. "As an actor, I'm employed for two months, then I'm not. It's nice to think, we'll make it to 10 years. I never try to look that far, because I want to make sure we get to this moment."
"People arehaving to learn the lesson how to live in love and not in fear. Live for now, not tomorrow," Mr. Tank said. "People forget, at the end of the show, the characters still have AIDS, they live for now. I think that, what a different world it would be if we could all live like that."
If you go
-- What: "Rent."
-- When: Tonight (preview) through Feb. 24; 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays.
-- Where: The District Theatre, 1611 2nd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $10 for preview; $20 all other performances, available at (309) 235-1654. For more information, visit districttheatre.com.