‘Rent’ addresses pertinent themes of today | ParkRecord.com

‘Rent’ addresses pertinent themes of today

Ziegfeld Theater Company sets up production at the Egyptian Theatre

Ziegfeld Theater Company's ‘Rent’

  • When: Nov. 18-20; 23-26
  • Where: The Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St.
  • Phone: 855-745-SHOW
  • Web: parkcityshows.com
Ziegfeld Theater Company’s production of “Rent” will open Friday at the Egyptian Theatre. The Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical, set in the 1980s, addresses issues such as housing and pandemics, which are still the top stories in Park City today.
Photo by Cory Waite

When Park City audiences catch the Ziegfeld Theater Company’s production of “Rent” that opens this weekend at the Egyptian Theatre, they will see and hear stories set in the 1980s that address housing and a pandemic — which happen to be what Park City, and the rest of the state and country, face today, said director Latoya Cameron.

“I think that there is this disassociation that’s happening in our Utah culture when we see things happen outside the state and don’t think that they are affecting us,” she said. “Unfortunately, that is never the case. And while the pandemic (in the production is HIV and AIDS,) not COVID, if people sit back and allow themselves to listen to what these characters are saying they will see how this story mirrors the situations that we are navigating in our own state, (and) I think they’ll see why this story is so pertinent to the now.”

To drive her point home, Cameron decided to turn the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning production into a work focused on activism.

“Based on these things that are happening around us, I felt like ‘Rent’ is not a musical, but a protest piece,” she said. “We approached it with that kind of energy and focus, and I get excited thinking that people will expect to see ‘Rent’ as the musical they know, but find there is all of this noise and chanting that will happen around them.”

“Rent” is about a group of artists struggling to survive and create a life in Lower Manhattan’s East Village while dealing with a pandemic.

Cameron was asked to come in as a guest director, after Ziegfeld had selected “Rent,” loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme,” for its fall season. She had some new ideas for the production.

“I wanted to take a look at it and see how we could approach it differently than what we already have seen,” she said. 

The first thing Cameron looked at was how to cast the show.

“I wanted to bring in more representation and inclusivity in body shapes and races, and make sure that the play was told by a majority of queer folks, because this is a very queer-central story,” she said.

She also wanted to bring in more honest interpretations of the characters Roger Davis, Mark Cohen and their landlord, Benny Coffin III.

“We always expect Roger to be this angsty, blond-haired, blue-eyed human, and we expect Mark to be a nerdy, sometimes redhead,” she said. “But I looked for folks who would show up as themselves.”

From the moment Cameron saw actors Nick Morris and Diego Rodriguez’s audition submissions, she knew they would be perfect in the respective roles of Mark and Roger.

“I have always liked Roger, but the more I dove into his story, I realized that he’s dealing with a lot of hardships and is trying to find his own personal glory that can affect people in a positive way,” she said. “Mark, I also love, because he sees something that is bigger than the rest of us, because he wants to hide. And that’s something we understand, because I think we all have a Mark in our lives.”

The role of Benny, a former roommate who hails from a wealthy and privileged family, has always been a little challenging for Cameron to envision.

“He has always been (acted) by a person of color, specifically by black male-presenting folks,” she said. “But I found that being problematic, because I just didn’t understand his trajectory as a person of color.”

So Cameron worked with her assistant director Sammee Jackman to be very conscious of how they were going to cast Benny, who, throughout the production, tries to minimize people who are houseless and those who are struggling financially. 

They found their actor in Dylan Floyd Panter.

“We wanted to really find who this character was, and what he was trying to say,” she said. “We also wanted to project the truth of his character back to our community and show that we, living in a predominantly white state, are precluding black, indigenous and people of color and queer folks from living a full life.”

During her research, one of the cast members loaned her the musical’s book, which was written by Jonathan Larson.

“Jonathan said that Benny is supposed to be a symbol of the gentrification and negative changes that were happening in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s,” she said. “That was interesting, because those who were and are causing gentrification were rich white folks. So, that’s why I wanted to lean more into that kind of casting.”

Cameron is proud that all the actors in her production aren’t trying to imitate other people’s performances in their roles.

“Instead, they let themselves influence these characters, and by doing this, they have found their truths,” she said. “Even from the moment I saw their auditions to working with them in the room and seeing how supportive they were with me guiding them, they really connected to these characters as themselves. And I think all the characters, individually, have their own beautiful imprints of what makes ‘Rent,’ and I think we would miss the full story without any one of them.”

Ziegfeld Theater Company’s production of “Rent” will run Nov. 18-20 and Nov. 23-26 at the Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St. For information and tickets call 855-745-SHOW or visit parkcityshows.com.

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