Friday, August 12, 2011

'Rent' Returns to Its Roots With a Passionate New Cast

The season of love officially began Thursday night at New World Stages, where the Off-Broadway revival of Jonathan Larson's "Rent" opened. The musical, which ran on Broadway from 1996 until 2008, has found a new life on West 50th Street, where "Rent"-heads new and old alike can once again enter the world of artists trying to survive and create.Under the direction of original "Rent" helmer Michael Greif, the revival brings a brand-new cast of young actors to the stage, many of them making their Off-Broadway debut."Coming as primarily a dancer, this is my first time singing solos and really my first time as an actor, and a leading actor at that," says Ephraim Sykes, who plays Benjamin "Benny" Coffin III. "To even be called in for the audition was very flattering, but then to hear that I got it was earth-shattering."For some of the actors, tackling the roles made famous by Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, and Idina Menzel was an opportunity they could not pass up. Annaleigh Ashford, who plays Maureen Johnson, had auditioned for the part three times beforetwice for the Broadway production, once for the Hollywood Bowl staging."This time, I came in with a strong perspective of what I thought the performance piece meant to me within the text," Ashford says, "and I'm so grateful that they responded to it and wanted to go in the direction that I was interested in taking it."Nicholas Christopher was asked to audition for the role of Benny before being cast as Tom Collins, the part he truly wanted."I called my agent and asked to be seen for Collins," Christopher says. "They had me sing for Benny and I was going 'Okay,' and thank God I asked for Tom Collins, because Ephraim is amazing. I'd be out of a job right now.""The cast is great," he adds. "Everybody is there, and everybody is passionate about the story." He seems to mean it, and so does the rest of the cast in talking about their fellow performers. "I'm blown away," says Adam Chanler-Berat, the new face of Mark Cohen. "They are all the most talented young people. I feel like we inspire each other.""Everyone is so available and open on stage," says Matt Shingledecker, who plays Roger Davis. "It's so wonderful to be in a group like that who can bring something fresh and interesting, and it keeps you on your toes. It keeps the show fresh; it never feels stale; it always feels new. I couldn't say enough about the group."Allowing the show to evolve while maintaining its original charm has been something that each actor has dealt with. Certain expectations come with such well-known characters, but the actors have been doing all they can to make the roles their own."It's a very complicated and tricky thing to do, because you want to pay homage to the person who created the role that you're now interpreting," Ashford says. "It's been exhilarating working with Michael Greif in this process, because he's helped me through collaboration to find such a new energy with Maureen."Chanler-Berat, who has originated such characters as Henry in "Next to Normal" and Peter in "Peter and the Starcatcher," found coming into a well-established role a tad shocking."I think it's difficult not only in my brain, but it's difficult because you feel in some ways you're combating an existing opinion and expectation of what the character should be like," he explains. "And in some ways you feel the need to honor it, but I think getting caught up in that is just sort of asking for trouble."

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