by Michael Bowen

In the current national touring production of Rent (at the Opera House, Dec. 19-22), Kevin Spencer plays Roger Davis, an aspiring rock musician. It so happens that Spencer himself is a rock musician who has "been touring for, like, eight or nine years in Canada, the U.S., the U.K." with his band, Mezzanine. One Friday night in Vancouver, B.C., a year ago, after repeated urgings by actor friends of his, he attended a performance of a musical he'd never heard of called Rent. Three days later, he relates, "I get a phone call [from the show's producers] saying, 'We've been watching you for a couple of years, following your career in magazines, and is there any chance we can bring you down to New York for the final auditions for Roger?' When I got to New York, I walked in the room with 24 other guys that sort of looked similar, and I sang 'Glory.' " ("One Song Glory" is the character's big solo early in the show.) "By the time I got to the front door," Spencer continues, "the casting director ran down the stairs to offer me the role."

In preparation for the national tour -- just as they had done for the original Broadway show -- the producers had auditioned more than 2,700 men over two years for the part.

In Jonathan Larson's 1996 musical, Roger has shut himself in his apartment for six months, ever since his girlfriend discovered that they both were HIV-positive and slit her wrists. Roger shares a shabby apartment in Alphabet City, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, with Mark Cohen, an aspiring filmmaker.

How can you connect in an age

Where strangers, landlords, lovers

Your own blood cells betray...

We're not gonna pay, we're not gonna pay

Last year's rent.

For Spencer, "what 'Rent' [the song] is about is that we're not going to pay rent on our minds -- I am not going to let this disease destroy me." At the same time, he explains, director Michael Greif avoids any hint of the feel-good American musical in which surely our heroes will prevail. During the title song, says Spencer, Roger and Mark "are doing this backwards-forwards choreography, pushing each other around like who's the landlord and who's the tenant. We are making fun of choreography, making fun of people who do musicals."

And yet, for Roger, music is dead serious. Alone onstage, fatalistic, he strums his guitar. In Spencer's view, Roger has equal measures of the urges toward fame and death in "One Song Glory": "It's like a trapeze act of walking the tightrope of positivity and negativity. And Roger is consistently battling himself and no one else -- that's why I lock everyone else out. Even with the HIV in his body, he is still finding enough in his mind and his spirit to know there is something out there for him."

Another character staring at death is Mark and Roger's downstairs neighbor, Mimi, played by Krystal Washington. Mimi supports her drug habit by working as a dancer in an S & amp;M club. Like Roger, she's HIV-positive, though neither wants to reveal the fact. In their first meeting, they sing one of the show's five love duets, "Light My Candle."

For Washington, Mimi at first is "just trying to make it through the day -- doing drugs, just being out there -- so that whether she lives or dies, it doesn't matter." But soon she wanders among the members of an AIDS support group, who are chanting, "There's only us / There's only this / Forget regret, or life is yours to miss." Washington comments that Mimi "hears that, but she interprets it in her way -- you know, there's only us, c'mon and go party with me, or you're gonna miss out on life." When Mimi sings the same lyric in "Another Day," a second duet with Roger, it takes on another meaning, and yet another, as Washington notes, by the end of the play.

Still, the party girl explodes onto the scene in "Out Tonight." Washington says that Mimi "is all over the stage," pleading to go "out tonight," even though she's alone, merely dancing around her apartment. After reviewing the tapes of the original production, choreographer Marlies Yearby urged Washington "always to remember that it is something very small in something very big." Rent has larger thematic ambitions on its mind than just encouraging folks to party.

Act Two opens with "Seasons of Love," sung in a chorus line directly to the audience, a reminder to hug the ones you're with. Spencer loves the song, because "it's the first time we get to actually ignite the audience with our faces and our eyes. It's our last moment before the boundaries are drawn again, and we get to step out and say, 'You know what? Yeah, I am Roger Davis, but I am also Kevin Spencer and I believe in this play."

In Mimi's first encounter with Roger, Washington notes, she simply is not going to give up her stash of drugs: "She's not going to leave her drugs sitting there, because she paid good money for them [laughs]. It's not until 'Without You' that she actually throws her drugs away." It's a love song that expresses character development as well: "It's about Mimi trying to decide to choose her drugs or Roger. And in the end she chooses Roger."

Roger, meanwhile, has to learn how to make a similar emotional investment; Spencer points to "What You Own" as a turning point. His roommate Mark complains about materialism's emptiness: "And when you're living in America / At the end of the millennium / You're what you own / So I own not a notion / I escape and ape content / I don't own emotion -- I rent." For Spencer, the meaning is that "I can be happy today, and it can be gone tomorrow, because my spirit did not have the investment to make me happy."

But are audiences making an emotional investment in the show? In December alone, the Rent tour performs 26 shows in 12 different cities, from San Francisco to Boise, from Medford, Ore., to Billings, Mont. Especially in the trip from the Bay Area to southern Idaho, Krystal Washington has seen some contrasts: "We went from audiences screaming for everything to... they just don't scream. But that's okay with me. I actually prefer that. Because instead of saying, 'This is so cool, it's a rock musical,' I would like to think that they're listening to what we're actually saying.

"With this show," she goes on, "maybe you don't like the drag queens or the homosexuality, but if you listen -- maybe, just maybe, one person out of the thousand people who are there is now thinking differently, or at least has opened their mind to think differently. And that's worth it every time."

The rebels in Rent just might find resonance with audiences even in conservative parts of the country. After all, for each of us, when it comes to refusing to pay rent -- to be rent, torn up by society's indifference and ugliness -- there is, indeed, no day but today. Larson's revolutionary musical urges us to believe that quirkiness is a strength, and unity among friends the deepest of bonds. La vie boheme: Long may it rave.

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.