'Rent' came due, and 300 lined up to pay Theater: An open casting call for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical brought some hopefuls out as early as 5 a.m.

September 28, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

They started lining up at 5 a.m. Five hours later, when auditions began at Max's on Broadway, there were 300 "Rent" wannabes. The hopefuls ranged from teen-agers who'd never auditioned for anything to pros who'd tried out before and, undaunted, were at it again. Some had never seen the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical; others were "Rent"-aholics, who follow it from city to city.

The casting call was for replacements in any of the four North American companies of "Rent" (one of which arrives at the Mechanic Theatre tomorrow). The show has held auditions in more than 20 cities, according to Heidi Marshall, one of "Rent's" New York casting directors, who came down to conduct Thursday's open audition. Marshall was pleased enough with the turnout in Baltimore to extend the audition an extra day.

Auditioners were asked to sing 16 bars of a rock or pop song a cappella. Musical theater songs were discouraged. Raw talent was the desired commodity. "Because of the needs of the show, we need to cast a wide net," Marshall explained. "Those people who come in with less theatrical experience give you more to work with in terms of soul and personality."

Performers who passed the a cappella test were given sheet music to a song or two from "Rent," along with a cassette `D recording, then were called back to perform the songs with an accompanist. If they passed that test, they were told they would be given a chance to audition in New York.

Terry Billy, a 24-year-old Baltimore native, was among the lucky ones. A professional studio singer in New York, she returned to her hometown for the audition. And, though Marshall wouldn't say if she was hoping to fill any particular role, Billy, a pretty young woman with a head of dark curls, looked perfect for Mimi, the female lead in this 1990s version of "La Boheme." Informed that she would be called to audition again in New York, Billy was incredulous. "You're not going to be contacting me, will you?" she asked Marshall, who assured her she would.

Erika Christensen, 17, of Frederick, had lined up at 5 a.m. with a half dozen friends. After her callback, she ran out screaming, "Oh, my God, oh, my God, I gotta come back tomorrow!" Maybe the large star on her T-shirt was a good omen.

One of the most appropriate audition songs was sung by Jennifer Ann Czarick, 20, of Pottsville, Pa. A junior majoring in English at Towson University, the sweet-looking brunette sang Tori Amos' "Leather," which begins with the line: "Look, I'm standing naked before you." Czarick came to the audition solely to accompany two friends. Her friends didn't make the cut, but she got a callback. "I'm not getting my hopes up," she said afterward, looking pleasantly surprised. "I expected the worst and hoped for the best."

"Rent" will be presented at the Mechanic Theatre Sept. 29-Nov. 1. Call 410-752-1200.


Attending AXIS Theatre's production of "Perestroika" -- the second and concluding part of the theatrical opus, "Angels in America" -- I was struck by two indications of what a stirringly effective job this tiny theater has done with Tony Kushner's immense play about AIDS, religion, politics and relationships in the Reagan era.

The first indication came early on, when I realized how much I enjoyed being back in the company of Kushner's wondrous and diverse characters -- Prior Walter, an AIDS patient whom an insistent angel has chosen to be a prophet; Hannah Pitt, a Mormon mother whose life unexpectedly intersects with Prior's, changing them both; and even evil Roy Cohn, the former McCarthy henchman who revels in describing himself as a "determined lowlife."

The second indication was the discovery that the portrayals by director Brian Klaas' already skilled cast have deepened. Mark Bernier's Cohn has become even more venomous. Randolph Hadaway's Prior is the most layered character I have seen this actor portray. Kahlil Joseph Lowry finds a near-perfect blend of toughness and fey humor as Prior's friend and Cohn's nurse.

And Bethany Brown continues to build on the firm foundation she established in part one. She plays a slew of characters ranging from eminently sensible Hannah Pitt to Ethel Rosenberg, who tries to discover whether she can forgive Cohn for sending )) her to the electric chair.

Forgiveness is a major theme in "Perestroika," as is the importance of human progress in the face of sickness, heartbreak and a reactionary band of angels preaching the gospel of stasis. Actually, "Perestroika" as a whole gets preachy near the end. But Kushner is preaching hope, and that can be a tough commodity to believe in these days. So, perhaps he

should be forgiven for overdoing it a bit.

"Imagination is a dangerous thing," Prior says in "Perestroika." AXIS has leapt fearlessly into Kushner's seemingly boundless imagination and come up with a production that honors its scope.

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