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‘Rent’ about friends becoming family

Morris Theatre Guild staging cutting-edge rock opera 3 weekends

Lizzie Mladic of Seneca, left, plays Mimi and club dancer and drug addict with HIV, while Chris Cummings of Wilmington portrays Roger, an ex-rocker going through voluntary drug withdrawal after his girlfriend’s suicide.
Lizzie Mladic of Seneca, left, plays Mimi and club dancer and drug addict with HIV, while Chris Cummings of Wilmington portrays Roger, an ex-rocker going through voluntary drug withdrawal after his girlfriend’s suicide.

The moving, Tony-award winning Broadway musical “Rent” will be brought to Morris for three weekends by the Morris Theatre Guild and some very talented performers.

The play is not your ordinary summer fare for the guild. There are no troupes of children in its cast, and in fact, children are not even allowed to attend the performances without an adult. The guild has unofficially rated the show R due to its cutting-edge, no-holds-barred lyrics and mature content.

Take the kids to Monsters University, and give yourself the treat of attending one of the most popular musicals of the generation, with singers/actors from all over the Chicagoland area and a backstage live band to give the performances all the more punch.

“Rent” is a modern rock opera loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s “La boheme” and revolving around a group of close-knit artists living in New York City’s bohemian East Village neighborhood. The struggles of the young men and women are portrayed through their challenges to achieve success while enduring poverty, illness, and AIDS.

But those involved are quick to explain that this is not a play about the AIDS epidemic itself.

“It’s very uplifting,” according to assistant director Kelly Johnson. “There’s a lot of fun in it. It’s a show about relationship ups and downs. . . It’s about the fact that what matters in life is who you are, how you’ve loved, and the differences you’ve made in other people’s lives.”

Johnson said the show has been a challenge, but everyone is living up to it and is “ecstatic” about its production in Morris. She remembers seeing the play a few years ago and remembering how moving it was.

“It’s been a labor of love,” she said.

Johnson said that to find the talent for the show, the guild had to reach outside the community, and indeed, the cast hails from all over.

Nico Garcia is a 24-year old Chicago Heights actor who said he didn’t mind the long drives to and from rehearsals to be able to play this role.

“It’s been a dream role since high school,” Garcia said. “It’s one of those roles I wanted so bad. I knew the role upwards and backwards and everything about this role. . . I couldn’t be happier.”

Garcia plays Angel, a flamboyant drag queen, which is right up his alley. In real life, Garcia has been doing drag for five months in the evenings, preparing for a role in a New York play about drag queens. He already had the walk and the talk and the platform heels down pat.

“I told Derek I’m not wearing anything below four inches,” he said of his shoes. “It’s not as hard as they say.”

The hardest part of playing a drag queen in the musical, he said, are the quick wardrobe changes necessary.

“There are a lot of changes that I can’t do backstage,” he said, “so I have layers on.”

That can get pretty hot, especially with the stage lighting and the Christmas coat Garcia wears in the first act.

“There are fans backstage, and one of them is my best friend,” he said with a laugh.
Garcia also said that he has found this cast to be an enormously supportive one.

“What I really love about this production is that the cast bonded so quickly,” he said, “and are all coming together to make this show great. . . You don’t always have that. . . And they’re all so good. Every single ensemble person, when they’re on, they’re on. . . I also love the fact that everything is so intimate in this theater. I love the intimacy in it.”

Twenty-one year old actor Chris Cummings is from Wilmington and plays Roger — an ex-rocker going through voluntary drug withdrawal after his girlfriend commits suicide.

“As soon as I heard that they were doing it,” he said of MTG’s Rent, “I thought that no matter what else was going on during the summer that I wanted to do this. . . Seeing Rent was my first theatre experience, and I just fell in love with it – the music, the story, everything about the characters, I loved.”

Cummings described the cast as brilliant and said the bond they have will be reflected on stage and that the audience will be able to feel it. An Illinois State University student studying theatre education, Cummings said the role has widened his vocal range and allowed him to work with a very talented group.

Morris actor Trent Zelko, 19, doesn’t have as far a drive as some of the other cast, but like the others, he said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be in Rent. He’s been interested in theatre ever since a Morris High School teacher, Jennifer Bamonte, encouraged him to audition for Beauty and the Beast.

He did several high school dramas and has been in Joliet Junior College and other MTG shows since then.

“It was my dream role,” Zelko said of his character in Rent. “This show, especially act two, I love it. It’s so emotional. . . For me, it’s the biggest role I’ve ever had. The cast has been so supportive.”

Zelko said he only knew one cast member going into the play, and that it was exciting to him to get to know so many talented actors. He said they all clicked from the start and usually go out for dinner or to someone’s house after practice.

Zelko said the talent in the cast is extraordinary. He especially loves listening to Courtney Melocik, a Morris resident who is a professional actor and has been in Broadway plays.

“She gives me chills every time she sings,” he said.

His character, Mark, is a struggling filmmaker. Zelko said he’s trying to make the living he wants while continually getting pushed down.

Lizzie Mladic, at 19, from Seneca, said she feels very lucky to be in Rent’s cast.

“It’s been one of my favorite musicals since I can remember,” Mladic said. “Even when I was too young to understand what it was all about. . . Everyone in it is just amazing, and it’s been a good experience all around.”

Mladic, a Joliet Junior College student majoring in communications, said one of the challenges for her is the large amount of singing involved. She plays Mimi, a character who is the same age as Mladic, but has lived through much tougher times than the actor. Mimi is a club dancer and a drug addict and has HIV.

Mladic said she encourages everyone in the community to see the play.

“It’s not something to miss,” she said.

“Please come,” Nico Garcia said. “I think everybody who comes in will walk away with something.”

“Even though some of the subjects are controversial,” Chris Cummings said, “it really has a message that can speak to everyone.”

“It’s a great show,” Trent Zelko said. “It’s not a show about AIDS. It’s a show about a group of friends becoming a family and working through problems they have.”

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