AT THE BASIE: THIS SPACE FOR ‘RENT’

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Billy Piscopo rehearses “La Vie Boheme” in the Phoenix Productions staging of RENT, opening this weekend at the Count Basie Theatre. (Photos courtesy of Phoenix Productions)

By TOM CHESEK

It’s a show that’s described by the director as iconic and beloved; one whose “fierce honesty” and “lack of artifice” has made it a genuine favorite of a whole generation of stage performers.

It won a Best Musical Tony and a Pulitzer Prize; ran for a dozen years on Broadway; has single-handedly been credited with reinventing the modern American musical — and has spawned a legion of followers who’ve been branded everything from “the most passionate” to “the most annoying” of fanbases.

When Rent comes to Red Bank this Friday night for its first-ever staging by the borough-based Phoenix Productions, one might think that it’d be a ready-made coup for the Count Basie Theatre‘s resident nonprofit theatrical troupe — a slam-dunk “Phoe-nomenon” with a built-in audience.

Instead, as Phoenix artistic director Tom Frascatore points out, it’s “not at all a safe bet for us. In fact, it’s a bit of a dice roll.”

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Billy Piscopo, Lauren Annunziata and Dan Gershaw sing and dance for their RENT when the fervently followed musical goes up this Friday in Red Bank.

The 53-year-old Middletown native, who previously directed successful Phoenix stagings of High School Musical and The Producers, has nothing but praise for his dynamic young Rent cast and crew (“they’re a true family”). He fully expects those passionate Rentheads to come out in support of this high-profile community theater revival (“people really expect the best when you do this show”). It’s just that, as a three-year veteran of the Phoenix board, he needs to keep an eye trained on that ever-bedeviling bottom line.

“The average Rent audience member is 25- to 35 years old, and our subscriber base at Phoenix is 45 and older,” says Frascatore.

“The show may not have that emotional resonance with our base that it has for the younger audience.”

Still, while the traditional subscriber base continues to support such classics as Fiddler on the Roof, Oklahoma! and The King and I (all of them recently revived or on their way), the venerable community stage troupe — a company that performs at a major entertainment landmark, rather than a church basement or stripmall storefront — has been pushing that envelope in recent seasons. Phoenix has presented shows like Beauty and the Beast and the aforementioned High School as soon as rights have become available  — and at considerably greater expense than a 50-year-old warhorse of a musical.

It’s a strategy that relates to what Frascatore cites as the two primary parts of the company’s mission — to get new subscribers, and to enhance the company’s reputation; what the director calls “the stewardship of the Phoenix brand.”

It was one of the more recent-vintage properties — the 1990s sensation Miss Saigon — that Frascatore credits with having “saved” the 2009 Phoenix season, calling their expense-intensive November production a “megahit in our world” that “sold to the gills.” Frascatore’s similarly lush (but somewhat less boxoffice-blinging) Producers was nonetheless a favorite of crowd and critic alike, and a showcase for one of the most top-notch comedic casts ever assembled by the company.

“Therein lies the challenge,” the director observes. “People expect high production values from us; we pay to use the thousand-seat Basie, and our costs are substantially higher than other not-for-profit companies.”

All of which brings us back to making the Rent. In the rock-inflected musical by Jonathan Larson (whose sudden passing on the eve of the Off Broadway premiere has become a crucial part of the show’s lore), the themes of the Puccini opera La Bohéme are transplanted to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1980s; the dawning of the Age of AIDS and an era defined by events both sudden (the Thompson Square Park riot) and simmering (the creeping gentrification that would tear apart the sort of Bohemian neighborhood pictured here).

It’s in this setting that a core group of creatives, dreamers, junkies, lovers and aspiring yuppies mix, mingle and make music. There’s Mark (Billy Piscopo, no relation to Joe), a filmmaker and the central character of the ensemble cast; his HIV-positive songwriter roommate Roger (Dan Gershaw); activist, aspiring restaurateur and AIDS patient Tom (Nicholas Rodriguez); their social-climbing landlord Benny (Travis Allen); Mark’s ex, performance artist Maureen (Lindsay Lavin); her lesbian lover Joanne (Carol Wei); Roger’s junkie girlfriend Mimi (Sugen Colindres) — and the tragic Angel (Kyle Van Zandt, no relation to Steven or Billy), Tom’s AIDS-dying lover and a sought-after showcase role for many a young actor.

“I have a lot of Rentheads in my cast,” the director says of his collection of stage veterans and newcomers. “This is the first time I’ve ever had actors beg me to have more rehearsals.”

Frascatore also credits the experience of putting on a show at the Basie as one of the reasons why he’s “blessed with the caliber of talent we have here.”

“You should have seen the faces on these kids when they walked past those coming-attraction posters, when they entered the building and looked around — they were just slackjawed.”

Performances for Rent are July 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 8p, as well as July 18 and 25 at 3p. Tickets are priced between $22 – $29, and can be reserved at the Basie website.