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Mirvishes ready Canadian production of Rent

Friday 24 October 1997

John Ibbitson - The Otttawa Citizen

TORONTO -- Chad Richardson grew up in Newfoundland's Conception Bay South. He helped pay his way through college in Montreal by winning karaoke contests. The producers first heard him sing at a cattle call.

And they loved him.

Richardson is one of 16 Canadians and five imports who are bringing Rent, the hottest thing to hit Broadway in years, to Canada next month.

The show opens in previews at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre on Nov. 25, followed by a six-month run and a national tour that will include stops in Vancouver and some combination of Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Edmonton.

The cast is young and unknown, and some of the resumes mighty thin.

"This is the first acting I've ever done," confesses Richardson with a grin. Despite the absence of theatre credentials, the 27-year-old was handed the part of Mark, one of the show's principal characters, because of his singing talents.

"I got the role because at no juncture did I ever think I'd get it," he believes. "I didn't have any cockiness."

Exploiting raw, young, high-energy talent is the very essence of Rent, a modern retelling of Puccini's La Boheme, with Paris replaced by New York, consumption replaced by AIDS.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play was the creation and obsession of Jonathan Larson, whose tragic death last year from an aortic aneurysm on the eve of the off-Broadway debut gave the work a poignant cachet. Despite, or perhaps in part because of, Larson's premature death (he was 35), Rent vaulted onto Broadway and into the ranks of great American musicals.

Rent is to the '90s what West Side Story, Hair, and Chorus Line were to their decades -- at once risque and schmaltzy, with music contemporary but safe, and a volatile plot that celebrates youth, sex and, above all, living in New York. Rent chronicles a year in the lives and loves of a gaggle of young bohemians struggling to survive.

To cast the Canadian show, producers David and Ed Mirvish opened the stage doors and let in more than 6,000 hopefuls, who showed up for open auditions across the country.

In the end, the Mirvishes imported American talent for the lead roles of Mimi and Roger. But Canadians fill almost all the other parts, with actors recruited from Toronto, Hamilton, Calgary, Winnipeg and points between and beyond.

Jennifer Aubry from Montreal takes the part of Maureen, a tempestuous performance artist who torments lovers of both genders. Quebec audiences may remember her from her days as Charlotte, on the soap opera Chambres en Ville.

The musical's success will depend largely on how Canadian audiences take to a musical that sings about homelessness, homosexuality and HIV.

Eighteen-year-old Jai Rodriguez, an American import who plays the transvestite Angel, is convinced Canadians will have no trouble handling Rent's provocative themes.

"Sure, there's going to be a bit of shock value, but most people are really going to enjoy it. It's just about love, you know."