Backstage: ‘Rent,’ ‘Tommy’ and ‘Wolfe’

This week, Backstage is going back to school with two college productions: the University of Maryland’s “Rent” and American University’s “The Who’s Tommy.” If you like them, just leave a note on the dry-erase board on the door.

‘Seasons of Love’ reprise

(Courtesy of Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center) - Alan Mingo is directing the University of Maryland's production of “Rent.”

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.

Between music, musicals

Rivera: It’s 50 percent theater, 50 percent rock concert. I told the cast to throw out that acting technique from theater class, throw out that Stanislavski method.

Leavy: In the beginning, Javier pulled me aside to watch Madonna videos and said, “That’s what you should be doing.”

Rivera: I tell everyone to channel their inner rock star. He is Freddie Mercury, he is David Bowie, he’s even Lady Gaga.

Leavy: I found a connection with Adam Lambert from “American Idol.” He is a rock star and is very theatrical.

The true nature of ‘Tommy’

Rivera: I like pieces that are provocative and out of the box, that are grandiose, that are operatic, that will disturb people and make them cover their ears. . . . [And] there’s a social aspect to this show. It’s a very misunderstood play. . . . [It’s] the human story of a child who is told that he is less than, that he will never achieve anything.

Getting into character

Leavy: We had to bring in an object to represent [our characters]. I brought in a sealed box — when you open it, it’s empty except for a mirror. Because you keep wanting to know what’s inside [Tommy], but if you could look inside him, you’d see yourself.

Thursday-Oct. 29, Greenberg Theatre, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, 202-885-1000, ­www.american.edu/cas/
greenberg

Wordplay

Say you were going to write a play about Tom Wolfe. You could call it “Tom Wolfe: A Man in Full.” But would that capture the essence of the writer famous for tongue-twister titles and acrobatic language, for deploying nouns as verbs and the kind of creatively capitalized and punctuated sentences that would drive an English teacher crazy, just completely and utterly and totally crazy — crazy, Crazy, CRAZY!?!!?

Of course not.

Judith Auberjonois’s almost-one-man-show about Wolfe and his work is titled “Wolfe! The Electric Kool-Aid Ice-Cream-Suited Right Stuff Man-in Full-on-the-Beat.”

A 40-minute excerpt from the play will be performed at the Newseum on Wednesday night. Wolfe will be in attendance, witnessing the project for the first time.

“Tom Wolfe really was a blaze across the sky,” Auberjonois said. “I can’t underestimate the impact that he had. He has a very rich verbal cabinet.”

She has been thinking “for decades” that Wolfe’s work “would be a wonderful thing to adapt to the stage.”

“It really is a verbal feast,” Auberjonois said. “I’m very excited by the matching of the material to the performer.”

Auberjonois’s husband, Rene, known as Odo from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and Paul Lewiston from “Boston Legal” (and, for a generation of girls born in the 1980s, the inimitable voice of Chef Louis from “The Little Mermaid”), will be “the instrument that will be playing the music of [Wolfe’s] words,” he said. “I will be the vessel. I’m not going to be imitating Tom Wolfe.

“Part of the magic of the whole evening and concept . . . is that we will be building towards the moment when he becomes the man in the white suit. Rene said he will wear head-to-toe black for Wednesday night’s show.”

As for turning Wolfe’s words into performance art, he said, “I have to approach the text like a piece of music.

“They really are fabulous words to read out loud. It’s like jazz — very challenging, but just wonderful.”

Knight Conference Center at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 888-639-7386, ­www.newseum.com

 
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