Loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, Rent is the story of a group of young adults struggling to create art, be themselves, and survive in the shadow of disease, addiction and rising prices. Sound familiar? While the original production of Jonathan Larson’s musical debuted in the early 1990s, the themes and challenges are every bit as pertinent today.
One Stage Family Theatre is bringing the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning show to the Elks Theatre stage. Director Nolan Sturdevant and Co-Creative Director Lexe Niekamp have been working on it as a passion project for over five years.
The themes of Rent are weighty, and the producers want to be sure that patrons understand that it’s for mature audiences, its characters dealing with drug addiction, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, suicide and financial struggles. Niekamp says, “People tend to react when they are in fear of the unknown, so I think it’s important to sit down and have these uncomfortable conversations.” Sturdevant adds, “We are educating this community that the community [of people portrayed] in this show are in our community.”
Having faced down the challenges of Covid and acquiring the rights while another company is touring, they say the pieces have come together and it’s the right time to bring the show to the boards. Says Niekamp, “I think it’s important, now more than ever, to remind people that they can come together from diverse backgrounds and have different beliefs and still find relateability with each other.” The members of the production team are realistic and expect that the show won’t be for everyone, so while they are anticipating some criticism from the community, they feel the presentation remains important.
An underlying theme is the tension between art and commercialism. Is it more important for the character to live their authentic truth and pursue their art, or let life be determined by what will earn the money to let them be comfortable? For this production, art may be imitating life. Considering the show’s controversial nature, the One Stage team members understand that they may not see much return on the investment of time and money to bring it to life, but, says Niekamp, “Even if we can impact one person, that’s enough for us.”
Despite the darker challenges the characters face, the story is neither foreign nor complicated. Asked to describe the show, Sturdevant says, “This is one of those shows that is actually so simple it makes it hard to explain, because you put it out there that it’s a group of friends just trying to make it through life and its hardships. It’s because it’s so real and so raw. The biggest message that draws the whole line across this is love — expressing love and sharing love.” Niekamp chimes in, “Different seasons of it! ‘Seasons of Love’ is one of the most recognized songs from the score, and it has worked its way into popular culture along with the oft-quoted line, ‘no day but today.’”
By modern production standards Rent is a modest show, with no flashy set, turntable stage or cast members flying through the air. This simplicity focuses entirely on the characters, their emotions and experiences. The performers are challenged to create the scenes in ways that draw the audience in and express that these stories are everywhere. Early on Sturdevant decided not to stage the show without the right cast: “I’m not putting it out for the first time in the area and inviting people into this world without representing it well.” During the audition process he and Niekamp were delighted to assemble a cast they call “amazing.”
Sturdevant’s love for the show is clearly evident: “Rent is a show that I’ve wanted to do since I was introduced to it in high school. I fell in love with the musical right away. It’s one of those rare shows that’s about real life.” Both he and Niekamp are adamant about the importance of theatre in the community. As Niekamp puts it, “performing arts are coping skills.” Being part of a theatrical production creates a sense of community that benefits both teens and adults. One group is finding its social circle, while the other may be seeking new direction and connection.
Sturdevant and Niekamp themselves are prime examples of this, having met ten years ago in a production of Footloose at (Suze’s) Prescott Center for the Arts. Now in leadership roles, they expect nothing less.
Rent will play at the Elks Theatre at 7pm on April 14 and 15, with a 2pm matinee on April 15. Tickets are available through the Elks website at PrescottElksTheatre.org or by calling 928-777-1370. For more information about One Stage Family Theatre, including audition information and upcoming shows, visit OneStageFamilyTheatre.com.