After more than twelve years, “Rent” is finally becoming overdue on Broadway with the recent announcement that the show will officially close on June 1, but the national touring version shows no signs of slowing down and has committed dates through 2009 at this point. “Rentheads” continue to congregate wherever “Rent” is running, despite the fact that original cast members have long since departed any version of the show (though in fairness, most were getting too old anyway) and even though a movie version with most of that cast is widely available.
Still, there is nothing like seeing this show live, but the high energy and tight family-like ensemble has been a challenge for the show’s producers to sustain in terms of keeping the show fresh and at its best. The last time “Rent” came to town nearly two years ago, a non-equity cast was brought in, giving us a sense of what to expect when the show is finally allowed to be done by regional theaters and high schools and colleges. This time around, in what could be the final time that the original production may play in Chicago, the producers have stocked the cast with young, first-class singers, two of them “Idol” winners: Heinz Winckler, who plays Roger, was the winner of the first “South African Idol” in 2002 and who also placed fourth in the 2003 inaugural “World Idol” competition, and Anwar Robinson, who plays Tom Collins and was the charismatic music teacher who captured the nation’s attention with his outgoing personality and extraordinary vocal range on the fourth season of “American Idol.”
“It was done on a dare,” says Robinson, who has been singing since he joined a New Jersey choir as a child. “Your voice is an instrument like no other, accessed through muscle and breath control to make the best sound that you can.” Like the characters in “Rent” that live only for their art, moment by moment on a wing and a prayer, Robinson admits that he lived in a van while he went to the “Idol” audition, “laying down on an air mattress under blankets in the back to incubate my vocal chords.”
Now 29, Robinson says that he “never imagined” playing in something “that came out during—and defined—my generation,” though he admits as a songwriter and singer that he also hopes that “Rent” will help draw attention to his other talents. “We live part of our lives on that stage,” he says, noting that one of the characters is even a songwriter struggling to express himself. “We bring a lot of who we are to our roles.” Is part of who Robinson is someone who ever imagined himself falling in love with a cross-dresser, as his character does? “Angel only cross-dresses on holidays,” corrects Robinson, “and even Angel gets a laugh and a kick out of it.” (Dennis Polkow)
“Rent” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph, (312)902-1400. This production is now closed.