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The Musical of the '90s Rent is a window into a different world, for cast and theatre-goers alike

Saturday 1 August 1998

Janice Kennedy - The Ottawa Citizen

'Is this the non-eating section?" Jai Rodriguez asks, probably more loudly than he intends.

The sun is shining and the patio of Le Cafe, the National Arts Centre's busy canal-side restaurant, hums with the conversational buzz of happy lunchers.

Happy, except for 19-year-old Rodriguez, who is starving. He hasn't eaten since the night before, is desperately seeking the bun basket, and is devastated at the prospect of a long wait for the main-course lamb kebob he eventually orders. With a hat pulled down over his ears and traces of beard growth ("Oh my God, there's a camera. No one told us there'd be a camera here. I'm in my grubs"), he looks about impatiently for a waiter.

Then, laughing, he resumes his patter, chief talker at a table of talkers. If there is one thing Rodriguez loves -- perhaps even more than food -- it's talking.

He is not alone. In animated conversation, Rodriguez gets a good run for his money from his three colleagues at the table, fellow cast members of the first Canadian touring production of Rent!

The brash, wildly popular Musical of the '90s, the late Jonathan Larson's Tony- and Pulitzer-winning 1996 play, is set to open at the NAC Tuesday, after four days of previews -- and after eight successful months in Toronto, where loyal gangs of young "Rentheads" squatted daily on the sidewalk outside the Royal Alexandra Theatre, hoping for first crack at the limited cheap-seat tickets that are sold each evening shortly before the show.

The David and Ed Mirvish production of Rent!, which closed last Sunday in Toronto, has just embarked on its national tour, stopping first in Ottawa before a run in Vancouver.

Framed by sunshine and images of water, boats and canal-path strollers, Rodriguez, Saskia Garel, Chad Richardson and Karen Leblanc look like any number of tourists who have breezed into town, ready for whatever pleasant sights and sounds Ottawa in the summertime has to offer.

("I want to go on those barge things," says Rodriguez, pointing to the canal. "I've brought my bike and rollerblades," says Leblanc.)

But this tourist foursome is anything but a typical tourist group.

"I feel so honoured to be making a living from something I always wanted to do, which is performing," says Richardson, 28. "The fringe benefits are great, but the fact is, we still have eight shows a week to do. That's very physically taxing, gruelling, and it's hard, hard work. That's the bottom line."

Thirty times, while they're Ottawa tourists over the next few weeks, they'll dance about onstage in front of 2,300 people with an energy expenditure that would leave most people gasping. They'll belt out a dazzling, complex array of songs at top volume. They'll laugh and cry and pull heartstrings as they tell an interwoven story (a contemporization of Puccini's La Boheme) of urban poverty, artistic dreams, AIDS, homelessness, sexual variety, love, loss and, most of all, defiant celebration.

Garel, 28, will slip into her role as a hard-knocks Mimi, Larson's contemporary variation on the vulnerable heroine of Puccini's opera. Garel, who was a member of the ensemble and a Mimi understudy when Rent! opened last December, took over the key role for good in March. Richardson will step into the spotlight as Mark, the narrator/film-maker who co-ordinates much of the onstage action. Leblanc, also 28, will become lesbian lawyer Joanne, girlfriend to the bisexual Maureen (Mark's former girlfriend). Rodriguez, the youngest of the group, will don heels, skirt and splendidly tacky zebra-striped tights to become Angel, the unforgettable young drag queen with HIV and a heart of gold.

"I'm a little nervous about my character," he says, "because we hear that this is a more conservative town." Rodriguez, a New Yorker who was hired for the Toronto show just months after completing studies in musical theatre at a New York high school for the performing arts, is still getting to know Canada. ("They told me I had to be in a place called Toronto, and I knew that was, like, right near Niagara Falls. I knew it was like a small New York.")

In fact, adds Leblanc -- who, like Garel, is actually from Toronto -- in the show's early days last winter, people would leave at intermission, apparently upset by the emphatically '90s tone of Larson's strikingly original play and its contemporary moral sensibilities.

But, adds Rodriguez, whose character is the show's sweetest, "I think it raises awareness that people are just people."

For Richardson, the Newfoundland-born rock musician who made his theatre debut with Rent!, the show is "a workshop into a life most people, especially the ones who can afford the tickets, don't know anything about. They learn things in three hours, and I think it's worth it."

Cast members themselves have had to learn a few things, particularly about themselves.

"I was driving home one day from the show," recalls Garel. "I saw a homeless person on the corner, and there were these university-age guys kicking him and jumping over him and making fun of him. I leaned on my horn, and they left. Then I just broke down."

The group nods, as if in emotional agreement. Rodriguez remembers his feelings speaking to a real-life drag queen suffering from AIDS.

Observes Richardson, "That's when you say, 'What am I doing? What is this all about?' "

One of the things it's all about is camaraderie, the sense of family that has developed since the company began its artistic journey together last fall and is now taking on the road. It has seen them through onstage disasters, like the time Garel broke a finger in Act 1, or the time Richardson ruptured a bursa in his knee and had to be rushed to the hospital mid-show, creating an unprecedented casting crisis -- since his understudy was already filling in for an ailing Roger. It has also seen them through the ins and outs of more than eight months of demanding daily life together.

"We have a family dynamic," says Richardson, "from the bickering we do to the pride we feel when one of our own goes on to something else and does really well."

Adds Leblanc, "And we've seen everybody's real character, including the flaws -- except for Saskia, because Saskia's so nice." Across the table, Garel makes a dismissive noise. "She doesn't have a bad thing about her. Not a thing. She's beautiful inside and out."

Except, notes Rodriguez, who could be a prototype for the pesky Kid Brother, "Never tell her her hair is flat. Right before the curtain, never tell a person who's supposed to have big hair that her hair is flat. She'll kill you."

Garel laughs. "Actually, the hair really was a big issue. In the original cast, Mimi (Krysten Cummings), had, like, big, honkin', curly, beautiful hair. And I come with my little half-Chinese, half-Jamaican hair. They gave me extensions and pieces -- one even fell out one time during the show -- but finally they let me just go with my own hair. That's what I do now." (Her secret to make it look big? Less frequent shampooing, and lots of curling.)

As the canal-side table talk continues, the interruptions begin. The waiter is delighted to be serving them, since he has tickets for the next night's show. An older couple, visiting from Southern California, stop by to tell them they just saw them in Toronto a week earlier, during one of their final shows there. You were terrific, they say.

A sweet-looking young teenager approaches hesitantly and shyly asks if she can have the cast's autographs. Their warm welcome relaxes her visibly.

"Oh my God," squeals 14-year-old Hollis, visiting from Pittsburgh. "I can't believe it. I go around my room singing Rent all day, so, like, this is really, really great."

Leblanc asks her why she likes the show so much, and she answers, "I love the music. Me and my friends, we're so crazy and we're like, 'Oh my God, this is us.' "

It isn't, of course. Rent's starving young people of different artistic and sexual persuasions, living and dying in cold-water walk-ups in Manhattan's East Village, have little to do with the life of a youngster visiting Ottawa with her parents and little brother, and having lunch at Le Cafe while her dad videotapes her with the Rent! cast. But she says she relates to it, and the group treats her with friendly respect, each one carefully and thoughtfully signing her paper.

On their way out, her parents thank the group warmly for making their daughter's day.

When you have lunch with the Rent! gang, two things become clear. One is that they pick up fans and fame like a magnet.

The other is that they are genuinely nice people. Blockbuster talents in the blockbuster musical of the '90s, there appears not to be a prima donna in the bunch. Nerves beginning to jangle with the prospect of a new run, on a new stage, in front of new audiences -- and they remain good-humoured, considerate and down-to-earth.

Even when they're starving.