, Muskogee, OK

August 2, 2013

Everything is ‘Rent’: Smash Broadway musical hits MLT stage

By Leilani Roberts Ott
Phoenix Correspondent

— Tim Major encourages theater-goers to be open-minded when they see “Rent” opening at 8 p.m. today at Muskogee Little Theatre.

“It’s an amazing message if you get past the outward appearance,” said Major, who portrays Mark, a filmmaker who is making a documentary on Christmas Eve in 1989. “It’s a message of love, understanding and community.”

Coni Wetz, MLT executive director, said all young adults know this rock opera that has won a Tony Award for best musical and Pulitzer Prize for drama. The MLT program describes it as set in the East Village of New York City. “Rent” is about falling in love, finding your voice, and living for today.

Major and Zach Alexander, who portrays Tom, a gay man, saw “Rent” on stage in Chicago on a choir trip when they were students at Muskogee High School. Both wanted to act in the musical since seeing it 11 years ago.

“It’s a different role for me,” said Alexander, who has acted in several MLT shows. “I like the amount of soul in the character. He’s down to earth.”

Major also saw a live performance of the show in Tulsa and didn’t want to be any other character than Mark.

“I connected with the character,” said Major, who acted in “Music Man” with MLT. “His personality is like mine was back then. He keeps to himself, detached. When I was younger, I wasn’t accepted.”

Major and Braden Thomson, who portrays Roger, open the show with strong vocals backed by a choir made up of a life support group, homeless, junkies, police, vendors and street people wandering around. The street scene with graffiti was designed by the director, Teresa Bringle of Tulsa, and painted by Jose Angeles, 13, of Muskogee.

Shannon Johnson is music director for vocals and her husband, Jared Johnson, is the music director for the band.

“This whole show is told through the music,” Shannon Johnson said. “I’ve fallen in love with ‘Rent.’ I want the audience to go away feeling the same thing.”

Jared Johnson plays drums with Jim Loftin on bass; Holly Stocks, keyboard; and Brent Deacon, guitar. Loftin described the band as musical veterans.

“It’s great fun, rock ’n’ roll,” Loftin said.

Bringle, who also directed “A Few Good Men” for MLT, said everything is coming together. She said when she heard MLT was going to do “Rent,” she “jumped at the chance” to direct. The rights for amateur groups to do the musical just became available a couple of years ago, she said. She saw it on Broadway in 2000 and didn’t think it would ever be on a stage here.

“It’s based on the opera ‘La Boheme,’” she said. “It’s about community, street people, artists, business people ... these people form a community out of that.”

There are only about 200 spoken words in the show. There is some bad language and adult content that might make some uncomfortable.

“It’s nothing they haven’t seen on TV,” Bringle said. “It’s a good show. It’s about people surviving the trials and tribulations of life.”

Some of those trials are told through the character Thomson plays, Roger, who is an ex-rock star who has HIV/AIDS.

“He’s bitter and angry,” said Thomson, who hasn’t been on the MLT stage since he had a small part in “Oliver” when he was 13. “I love ‘Rent.’ It’s a message of community and love. Acceptance is a big one.”

Chrissy Lewis, who portrays Mimi, is Thomson’s on-stage and real-life girlfriend. She’s been in numerous MLT shows since moving to Muskogee in 2006. She saw “Rent” performed by a touring company in Tucson, Ariz., while attending the University of Arizona.

“Mimi became my dream roll,” she said. “She’s wild and fun.”

Lewis said some people may be shocked by “Rent” but she’s glad MLT is taking a risk to do the show.

“It’s something you would see in a big city,” she said.

Wetz agreed and said she is very proud MLT is doing this.

“It is a classic, iconic piece of work that has won the Pulitzer Prize. It is such a different piece — really cool. MLT audiences haven’t seen anything like this before.”

Production team

Teresa Bringle, stage director.

Shannon Johnson, music director for vocals.

Jared Johnson, music director for band.

David Rickel, choreographer.

The band

Jared Johnson, drums.

Holly Stocks, keyboards.

Jim Loftin, bass.

Brent Deacon, guitar.

The cast

Timothy Major as Mark Cohen.

Braden Thomson as Roger Davis.

Chrissy Lewis as Mimi Marquez.

Zach Alexander as Tom Collins.

Justin Franks as Angel Schunard.

Tawny Easterling as Maureen Johnson.

Amanda Dixon as Joanne Jefferson.

Chris Gilmartin as Benny Coffin II.

Peggy Harris as Mrs. Cohen.

Emily Burris as Alexi Darling.

Danny Innis as Mr. Jefferson.

Mallory Testa as Mrs. Jefferson.

Laurie Havron as Mrs. Davis.

Brettlyn Bevenue as Mrs. Marquez.

Ray Jenkins as Mr. Grey.

Chris Orr as The Waiter.

Jerrad Dry as Gordan.

Ashtonn Thompson as Paul.

Trae Havens as Squeegee Man.

Lu Murphy as Homeless Lady.

Emily Finney as Homeless Lady.

Penny McGill as Featured Singer.

Jeran McGill as Street Person.

Peggy Harris, Emily Burris, Danny Innis, Mallory Testa, Laurie Havron, Brettlyn Bevenue, Ray Jenkins, Chris Orr, Jerrad Dry, Ashtonn Thompson, Trae Havens, Lu Murphy, Emily Finney, Penny McGill and Jeran McGill as the life support group, homeless, junkies, police, vendors and street people.

If you go

WHAT: “Rent,” directed by Teresa Bringle of Tulsa.

WHEN: 8 p.m. today, Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, and 8 p.m. Aug. 8, 9 and 10.

WHERE: Muskogee Little Theatre, D and Cincinnati streets.

TICKETS: $15, adults; and $12, students, and available at Soundworld or at the door.

ETC.: This show is recommended for mature audiences only because of language and content.