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Original 'Rent' star Anthony Rapp still relates to his character

It has been a while since I gave much thought to Rent, which ran 12 years on Broadway, so it was a trip down memory lane last week when I watched the DVD of the last performance, Sept. 7, 2008, and also interviewed original cast member Anthony Rapp.

The late Jonathan Larson's epochal musical opens for a weeklong engagement Tuesday in Tampa, with Rapp reprising his role as Mark along with the original Roger, Adam Pascal.

I have seen Rent quite a few times through the years, and I must say that the live filming of the Broadway finale is a much stronger representation than the 2005 movie. The youthful performers capture the passion that makes it such a special show, and the closing curtain call, with original cast members such as Rapp and Jesse L. Martin joining the company in Seasons of Love, is a treat.

Rapp, 37, has played Mark Cohen, the filmmaker who narrates Rent, since the play's off-Broadway premiere in 1996. He had the role on Broadway and in London's West End for more than two years, then was in the movie, and returned to the Broadway production for the summer of 2007. He and Pascal have been with the tour since January and plan to stay with it until at least February.

Three years ago, Rapp published Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss and the Musical Rent, recounting his experience living through the death of Larson during rehearsals of Rent as well as his mother's death from cancer. Last year, he performed a stage adaptation of his book in Pittsburgh. Here are excerpts of my conversation with him from a tour stop in Portland, Ore.

Has your performance as Mark changed?

It's very deeply in my bones. So I don't try to change anything, but I'm sure some different colors come through now, because I've lived a lot of life in the meantime. But I haven't tried to reinterpret it, because I feel like what we built in the first place was very true.

You're so closely associated with the role. How similar are you personally to Mark?

I think we're similar in some ways. But I think I've grown up a lot more than where Mark is in his life. When challenging or difficult experiences happen in my life, I'm not as afraid to just confront them head on as I think Mark sometimes is.

Are you at all concerned that, at 37, you're too old to play Mark? And Adam Pascal is even older, at 38.

No one's seemed to mind so far. We can do all the things that are required of us. It's not like we're limping through it. The truth is, there was never an age specified in the script for these characters. Jonathan himself was 35 when he finished writing it. Anyone from their mid 20s to mid 30s could be living a life like this.

With your experience in Rent going back at least 14 years, what have been the two or three events you remember the most?

Well, the night that Jonathan died, coming into the theater the next day, gathering together and deciding what we were going to do in the wake of his crazy, terrible and sudden passing, and then doing the performance that night for his friends and family. That was an unforgettable experience. And then opening night off-Broadway was a fulfilling thing but also nerve-racking to think that if it didn't go well, all of that work and Jonathan's legacy would go for naught. And then opening night on Broadway was the night that my mom was able to come to see it. She had been very ill with cancer and that was the only time she got to see it. Those were probably the three most meaningful nights.

One thing I have noticed with Rent is that the farther it gets from the original, the louder and rowdier subsequent productions seem to get.

The show was always meant to be a mixture of the theatrical and the rock 'n' roll experience. I do know that this production has been very concerned with telling the story, and in some of the incarnations I've seen, that has been lacking. I hope it rocks in the right way, but I do think that it tells the story clearly and powerfully, and that's the most important thing.

What's the structure of your show Without You?

It's a one-person show with a five-piece band. It's a very condensed version of my book that distills it down to losing Jonathan, losing my mom. Some of the music is from Rent, some of it is original, stuff I wrote or co-wrote. It tries to tell the story of how a journey through loss was a journey of growth.

If you go: Rent opens Tuesday and runs through July 12 at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $38.50-$72.50. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; tbpac.org.

• • •

Racine's Phedre is not a play you're likely to see in these parts, but next weekend the new production by England's National Theatre, starring Helen Mirren, will be broadcast in high definition at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater. Presented by Ruth Eckerd Hall, it is part of the National's series, called NT Live, which airs in theaters around the world, including more than 30 locations in the United States.

"It's uncharted territory for us, and we think it will get a good response,'' said Robert Freedman, chief executive of Ruth Eckerd Hall, which manages the 400-seat Capitol for the city.

The National productions are being transmitted live via satellite to many European theaters, but U.S. venues are showing them later from DVDs. Phedre, in a translation by poet Ted Hughes, was directed by Nicholas Hytner, designed by Bob Crowley and got sparkling reviews when it opened in June. Mirren plays the title role of a woman whose lust for her stepson, played by Dominic Cooper, sets in motion the tragedy.

Other NT Live productions at the Capitol will include Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well; Nation, adapted by Mark Ravenhill from a children's novel by Terry Pratchett; and The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett.

If you go: Phedre has screenings at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday at the Capitol Theatre, 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater. $20. (727) 791-7400; rutheckerd hall.com; nationaltheatre.org.uk/ntlive.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs at Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Original 'Rent' star Anthony Rapp still relates to his character 07/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 4, 2009 5:30am]

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