When Alan Mingo came to College Park to direct “Rent,” which opens Friday, his undertaking was a double homecoming. Mingo is an alum of Maryland and the musical; he portrayed Tom Collins, an AIDS-stricken anarchist and philosophy professor, in the first and second national tours of the show, then staged a production in Italy before playing Collins on Broadway.
The cast’s “perspective is totally different from what I grew up with. It’s had a whole different meaning to me,” he said. “This was real life.
“I was really a kid watching adults go crazy: ‘Let’s lock people up in camps so no one gets it,’ ” said Mingo, reflecting on the AIDS epidemic. “The kids can’t necessarily embody that.”
Much about “Rent” can feel dated. Beepers remind the HIV-positive to take their AZT. Characters call each other from pay phones, leaving messages on answering machines. Alphabet City, home in Jonathan Larson’s creation to strippers, drag queens and junkies, is now three blocks from a Whole Foods. At the age of 15, “Rent” is a period piece.
Does the show’s “no day but today” message still resonate?
“They were still able to relate,” Mingo said of the cast members. “Even these actors who don’t know AIDS know loss.”
“AIDS is a big part of the show,” said David Todd, who plays Angel, a cross-dressing street drummer with AIDS. “But it’s really about everlasting love, and that’s timeless. . . . Don’t be afraid to let emotions take control of your being. . . . [Don’t] let anyone or anything define what you can love and who you can love.”
Mingo worked to tease out the threads “that weren’t necessarily the major themes of the show” but that click with current undergrads: selling out vs. artistic integrity, youth, gentrification. Besides, if there’s anything this generation understands, it’s not being able to pay the rent.
Jenay McNeil, who plays Joanne, an Ivy League lawyer, said the character of Mark, a frustrated filmmaker, resonates with her. “Mark loses his spark, but then he picks it back up again, and I feel that way a lot in school. Am I in the right major, is my passion in the right place?”
Perhaps because of the show’s age, it has developed theater-geek icon status. “Being involved in any sort of theater, you pretty much know about ‘Rent,’ ” said Matthew Hill, who plays Mark. “It’d be like if you listened to rock-and-roll and didn’t know the Beatles.”
Friday-Oct. 28, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Stadium Dr., College Park, 301-405-2787, claricesmithcenter.umd.edu
Talking to ‘Tommy’
Eddie Leavy, an American University senior, auditioned for the school’s “The Who’s Tommy” while studying in Prague by uploading a video of himself singing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” to YouTube.
Javier Rivera, the director and an assistant professor in the Department of Performing Arts at AU, insisted the distance was no obstacle: “From the moment I selected ‘Tommy,’ Eddie was on my radar.” Leavy landed the role of Tommy, the deaf, blind and mute boy-turned-pinball wizard, in the show, which opens Thursday night.