Rounding up 'Rent's' new bohemians Most came up from nowhere to get roles in the hot musical that's scheduled to open Tuesday at the Mechanic.

September 27, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Philadelphia -- When "Rent" premiered at off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop in 1996, it was essentially an unknown musical by an unknown writer, starring unknown actors.

And that was perfectly appropriate because, loosely based on Puccini's "La Boheme," "Rent" is a rock opera about aspiring artists - the marginal members of a struggling slice of 1990s bohemia in New York's East Village.

"Rent," however, catapulted its author, Jonathan Larson, from obscurity to fame - though he never knew the extent of that fame. Larson, who spent seven years creating "Rent," died of an aortic aneurysm at age 35, hours after the musical's final dress rehearsal.

After his death, the show transferred to Broadway, made the cover of Newsweek and won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, among others.

The production that begins a five-week engagement at the Mechanic Theatre Tuesday is one of six currently running internationally, from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Tokyo. (A seventh opens in Australia in November.)

The characters in "Rent" mirror their century-old predecessors. "La Boheme's" Rodolfo, a poet, becomes Roger, a rock musician; Mimi, the tubercular seamstress, is now Mimi, an HIV-positive exotic dancer; Marcello, the artist who is Rodolfo's roommate, is Mark, Roger's filmmaker roommate; and Benoit, their landlord, is a yuppy landlord named Benny.

But though it is derived from a tragic opera, "Rent" is a life-affirming musical. Larson's legacy is a show whose message reflects the way he lived his life - to the fullest. To borrow one his lyrics: "There's only now/There's only here/Give in to love/Or live in fear/No other path/No other way/No day but today."

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Here's a look at some of the up-and-comers who portray the young bohemians in the touring production coming to the Mechanic:

Laura Dias (Mimi, exotic dancer) - "Mimi is the role of a lifetime," says the 25-year-old native of Fall River, Mass. "She's a smart girl who does dumb things. She's aggressive and shy. She's nerdy and independent. She's funny and sad." Dias' mother, a Portuguese-American waitress, still carries the note she received from Laura's fourth-grade teacher saying, "She's made for the stage."

Dias was delivering food for an upscale Los Angeles service called "Why Cook?" when she attended an open-call audition for "Rent." By the time a childhood friend took her to see the show in Boston - telling her, "There's a character who reminds me so much of you" - Dias had already been hired to understudy eight of the female roles, including Mimi. Ten months later, the role of Mimi was hers.

While on tour, Dias has also made time for club dates, performing her new single, "Feel It," by the Tamperer Featuring Maya (she's Maya). No. 1 on the charts in several European countries, it's nearing the top of Billboard's American dance charts.

Trey Ellett (Mark, filmmaker) - "Everyone else in my family is tone deaf," says Ellett, 28, a self-described "Air Force baby" who grew in Roanoke, Va. A theater major at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., he started a summer job at a dinner theater the day after graduation, moving to New York five years ago. Frustrated by the paucity of opportunities, he and seven friends co-founded a theater company called Eight Productions.

Along the way, he has waited tables for restaurants and caterers. "We would cater these art openings, and there'd be all these people there you'd want to work with," he recalls. "You'd think, 'I really want to work with you, not for you.'"

Two years ago Ellett left a tape, resume and photo at the New York casting office for "Rent." Eighteen months - and 10 callbacks - later, he was playing Mark, who also serves as the musical's narrator, on the road. "Mark is the one I always wanted," he says. "He has this huge responsibility of being the voice of the playwright, and [Jonathan Larson's] presence is just so strong in the piece."

Christian Anderson (Roger, rock musician) - The son of an actor and a former director, Anderson, 29, was born in the proverbial trunk. He made his earliest appearance onstage as "a little naked baby" in a production of "Hair" at the University of Massachusetts. That launched his career as a child actor. He appeared on "Sesame Street," "One Life to Live," and commercials for everything from diapers to LifeSavers.

After singing in bands in New Haven, Conn., and Seattle, Anderson was eager to combine his interests in acting and singing. "But I wasn't too keen on run-of-the-mill musicals," he says. "I was hoping something new would hit." He was managing the graveyard shift at New York's Empire Diner and simultaneously appearing in one of those old-fashioned musicals, a 1940s-style off-Broadway show called "Take It Easy," when some fellow cast members suggested he audition for "Rent."

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