Salisbury Press

Monday, February 17, 2020

Bringing ‘Rent’ character to life rewarding for actress

Thursday, February 6, 2020 by DUSTIN SCHOOF Special to The Press in Focus

The 20th anniversary tour of the award-winning rock musical “Rent” stops for two performances, 3 and 8 p.m. Feb. 9, State Theatre Center for the Arts, Easton.

Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” tells the story of seven struggling artists trying to find their place in the world while pursuing their dreams without selling out. The action and drama unfold in Lower Manhattan’s East Village during the heyday of the Bohemian Alphabet City neighborhood, with the HIV-AIDS epidemic not only looming largely in the background, but playing a pivotal role in the musical’s storyline.

“Rent” national tour cast member Samantha Mbolekwa portrays Joanne Jefferson, an Ivy League-educated public interest lawyer whose relationship with the character Maureen is a plot point that helps set the first act in motion.

“What’s really cool is that the show has stayed true to what it was 20 years ago,” Mbolekwa says in a phone interview.

“It’s so raw and real and it’s inclusive. People who feel they haven’t been seen or heard can through this beautiful play. The [creative] team made sure to really honor Jonathan Larson and this piece of art he created.

“Because they’ve kept it so locked in and true, it’s been really special to know this is Jonathan’s vision, it hasn’t been changed. Getting to share that is a gift for us as a cast.”

“Rent,” inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s Italian opera “La Boheme,” premiered on Broadway in 1996. “Rent” was first staged as an off-Broadway workshop production in 1993. “Rent” ended its 12-year Broadway run in September 2008, having grossed more than $280 million. The national tour of “Rent” launched in 2009 in Cleveland.

The musical’s popularity and success led to the 2005 “Rent” feature film, with the star-studded cast including Idina Menzel, Jesse L. Martin, Rosario Dawson and Taye Diggs. “Rent” features such songs as “Seasons of Love,” “Take Me or Leave Me” and “Today 4 U.”

Mbolekwa says she and her castmates have grown close since the anniversary tour kicked off in August 2019:

“What I love about being on stage with this group of people is finding those little moments on stage together. I really do feel the entire cast has my back.”

Bringing Joanne to life is a rewarding experience:

“Being Joanne is so much fun. She’s so different from her friends and other characters on stage. She’s very structured and by-the-book, but people like [the character] Maureen is someone Joanne gets to express herself through.”

After seven months bringing “Rent” to audiences familiar and unfamiliar with the stage show, Mbolekwa still gets an emotional charge from interacting with fans.

“One of the biggest takeaways from meeting people is you can tell in their faces and their eyes they’re really uplifted,” she says.

“You can tell their feeling so fulfilled and happy to go on this amazing journey, leaving the theater feeling good. I want them to leave the theater feeling better than when walked in and get to feel something maybe they haven’t felt in a while.”

Tickets: State Theatre Center for the Arts box office, 453 Northampton St., Easton; statetheatre.org; 1-800-999-7828; 610-252-3132