On the Road Again

The version that will land feet first in Broward this January, then travel to Dade in May, is more polished than the scrappy production that seemed without a future. "In one bit we used to come off the stage and dance on tables where people had their drinks," he laughs, recounting the show's early days. "One of the original guys was real big [strikes bodybuilder pose], and he'd go through the tables."

The current look and content of Tap Dogs evolved during the rehearsal process. "We went into rehearsal, and Nigel [director Nigel Triffitt] came in with this little model of the set," remembers Read. "It looked like popsicle sticks and bits of string. We couldn't believe it. Then every day in rehearsal another piece would be added. We'd muck about with it and say, 'What are we going to do with this?' It came together in parts."

One thing Read hopes never changes is the troupe's interaction with the audience. In fact, a sign posted at the Union Square Theatre tells jaded New Yorkers that the cast meets with fans at the stage door after each performance, a practice Read says started in Australia. "Yeah, we're happy to talk. We used to do that. Then here we'd be coming out of the theater and we saw people weren't sticking around. We said, 'Hey, put the sign up.'"

Sighting a Tap Dog as one exits a theater is one thing. Distinguishing the cast from the crowds when the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent pulls into the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts in late April will be something else again. Based on Puccini's masterpiece La Boheme, about ill-fated love among artists in Paris, this rock and roll update may be set in Manhattan's SoHo but it could pass for SoBe. Rent's modern bohemians include rock composers, drag queens, exotic dancers, performance artists, filmmakers, people with AIDS, junkies, and other downtown denizens, all of whom fight for life, love, and a kind of success that doesn't require selling out.

Over lunch in a SoHo restaurant not too far from the musical's purported setting, choreographer Marlies Yearby agrees that Lincoln Road regulars would seem at home on the Rent set; in fact, several months ago the producers held an open casting call in Miami, but no one was hired. "We cast looking for a look," she explains. "In every company there's a person who has had no theater experience or very little theater experience."

Nominated for a Tony Award for her ability to take scruffy young people and make them act and move on-stage like scruffy young people, Yearby alters her choreography for each new actor. "So much of my work evolves out of a gesture or movement," she observes. "Angel [the show's outrageous drag queen] jumping up on the table came out of the way he [actor Wilson Jermaine Heredia] was in rehearsals: He'd always jump up on the table with the script. And I said, 'Put on these heels and jump up there.' It came out of who he was. Each cast has its own character and its own choreography. You could see a different company and see a different show." Then, with tired though good-natured resignation, she adds, "I'm always in re-create mode. If I had to regurgitate shows, I'd probably slit my wrists."

While the 37-year-old choreographer collaborates with her hip young cast, the show's 32-year-old producer, Jeffrey Seller, refines strategies for turning Gen X-ers into ticket buyers. Sitting in his theater district office, with the Tony Award he received when Rent was named Best Musical of 1996 on the shelf behind him, Seller relates, "The ad campaign in general was very rock and roll and aimed at the people that went to rock concerts. People would see pictures of the cast and think, 'This is about people like me.' Rent speaks to our generation of theatergoers."

Building on the show's appeal to twentysomethings, tickets for the first two rows of TOPA will be sold to students for $20 on the day of the show. According to two people I met at a Sunday evening performance, that's a deal -- they paid $20 just to stand and watch the musical from the back of Broadway's Nederlander Theatre.

Jennifer Mayhew, a 23-year-old from New Jersey, was seeing Rent for the seventh time -- after having also seen that same day's matinee performance. "I connect with the characters," she remarks, unwittingly echoing Seller's words. "The play deals with things people our age deal with." She has already purchased tickets for another performance. Ditto the woman standing next to her, 22-year-old Shana Jones from Chicago, who saw Rent on tour in St. Paul and Boston, and who on this Sunday is seeing the Broadway company's production for the fourth time. "I like the energy; it's a different feeling," she all but testifies. "Every time I see it, it makes me feel better about my life."

Before meeting each other in person at the theater, Mayhew and Jones became acquainted through postings they made to the Rent message boards found in the Playbill area of America Online. They are just two of a growing number of fans who leave theaters only to continue applauding on the Internet. And their enthusiasm isn't confined to message boards: When the producers of Big shut down their home page, they left a link to an unofficial site run by Paul R. McCaffrey, a devoted follower of the show. Thanks to McCaffrey, if you can't wait until the David Shire/Richard Maltby, Jr., musical version of the hit 1988 Tom Hanks movie arrives at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in January, you can surf over to members.aol.com/HiReeds/big.html and find out how the huge piano the cast dances on really works or read about how Big was rated in the ultrasecret Tony nominating meeting.

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