Theater Review - CL critic Keely L. Herrick goes backstage with 'Rent'

Despite nerves, writer takes theater company up on walk-on role

I purchased the Rent experience at an auction at an Actor's Express (AE) cabaret event earlier this year, and as the day of the performance grew near, I'll admit to being a little nervous. While certainly not a shy person, I have an aversion to crowd participation, largely based upon the inability of groups of people to maintain a rhythmic clap. Also, when you're a fan of a production, you don't want to be part of a distraction that could detract from the performance. While I jokingly threatened to enter with jazz hands during a dramatic death scene, there was some legitimate concern on my part that I could do something to lessen the experience for other audience members.

It seems like everyone in Atlanta's theater community has been talking about AE's production of Rent, and justifiably so. The charisma, talent, and energy of the cast is overwhelming, from leads like Jeremiah Parker Hobbs (Roger) and Julissa Sabino (Mimi) to ensemble members such as Trevor Rayshay Perry and Ashley Tate. If you saw the original production of Rent, it may be a bit painful to realize that the show is nearly 20 years old, but it's also heart-wrenching to wonder what other works creator Jonathan Larson would have produced had he not passed away in 1996.

As iconic as the original cast has become, it's a shame that Larson couldn't see AE's Jennifer Alice Acker as she tears down the house with her hysterical, unabashed commitment to Maureen's performance art. Austin Tijerina manages to cartwheel from one level of the stage, maintain a drumbeat, and deliver an aerobic song as the lovable Angel. You'll even find yourself rooting for the villainous Benny, as actor Michael Stiggers has such a smooth voice it's difficult not to be won over.

As someone who enjoys being in control of a situation (less politely, perhaps, a control freak), I was outside my comfort zone not knowing exactly what was going to happen on stage. I had seen the show the previous week, so I had a general idea of the raucous party atmosphere of "La Vie Boheme," the number I'd be performing in, but didn't know if I would be walking off directly after walking on. To cover all bases, I decided on an ensemble of black shorts and a sleeveless shirt, sparked up by black and white striped tights. I knew the cast would be dressed for a New York winter, but my walk-on dedication did not extend to wearing a winter coat in Atlanta in July.

I was introduced before the show to my handler, ensemble member Eric Hosford, and told he would grab me from my aisle seat just before the beginning of the number. I was encouraged to sing along (without a mic, how much damage could I do?) and enjoy myself. I had brought my own cheering section of friends and family who were all expecting my Joffrey Ballet dance training from 25 years ago to show in some spectacular jazz hands, so there was a bit of pressure to deliver, but within seconds of being pulled on stage, my nerves evaporated. I was slightly concerned that I might be expected to jump on the table like some of the cast members or kick my foot to my ear like Sabino's Mimi, but these theater folks know what they're doing, after all, and I was allowed to keep my feet on the ground. While the songs seem to go quickly when you're in the audience, being on stage gives you a new appreciation for a first act finale.

It's a relatively common practice for theaters to auction off fun experience packages such as walk-on roles, VIP seating, or dinners with the cast of a particular show. In Atlanta, the donations required to score one of these primo opportunities are less painful on the wallet than they would be for similar experiences in New York or even touring Broadway productions.

Whether it's a walk-on role or voice lesson from a pro, experiences like these, available at many companies around town, are a fantastic way to support local theater and have a new adventure that will let you win Facebook for the day. After all, someone has to pay Rent.

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