Call it fate. Call it destiny. But when Middleton Players Theatre set its 2014 season, Rent and A Chorus Line were not the productions the organization had first chosen to do.
“We had originally planned to do two completely different shows,” said Thomas J. Kasdorf, Co-Artistic Director and Music Director. “But due to different circumstances, we had to rearrange our shows and finally settled on Rent and A Chorus Line.”
Loosely based on Puccini’s La Boheme, Jonathan Larson’s Rent is the rock opera mega hit that took New York by storm in the mid-1990s. Over the course of a year, it follows a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York’s Lower East Side, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS. One of its central characters, Angel, is a high-fashion, take-no-prisoners street performer and drag queen.
A Chorus Line is the ground-breaking 1970s musical conceived by Michael Bennett with music by the late Marvin Hamlisch. It tells of the achingly poignant ambitions of professional Broadway gypsies to land a job in the show and is a powerful metaphor for all human aspiration. Standing among the many hopefuls is the character of Paul, a young man struggling with being gay in the 1970s and gaining strength and comfort in who he is and the acceptance of his family and those around him.
The characters of Angel and Paul represent two individuals in drastically different scenarios. In A Chorus Line, Paul’s world is filled with a lot of fear and injustice. Paul’s story shows how life and profession can be drastically affected by a person’s sexuality. In contrast, the character of Angel in Rent lives in a world that has come a long way in acceptance of gays, lesbians, and cross-dressers too.
Playing the role of Angel in Rent is Verona native Trevor Bass. Trevor was last seen on the MPT stage in last year’s production of Les Misérables and most recently was seen as Matt in Four Season’s 2013 production of The Fantasticks. Chaz Ingraham, who is no stranger to the Madison theatre scene, plays the role of Paul in A Chorus Line. Chaz was first seen by MPT audiences in The Rocky Horror Show in 2008. Since then he’s been seen in The Producers, Chicago, Into the Woods, and Les Misérables.
But what makes playing these iconic gay roles into a particularly interesting challenge is that the actors both identify as straight. Their process of presenting these two characters may be more difficult than one might think. “For me, playing a role like this requires a lot of respect for the character,” said Ingraham. “But it also requires a high level of vulnerability. I have to find a way to go to a place (for the character) that is raw and open. I can’t hide behind a façade. I have to put everything on the line, for lack of a better phrase. I have to do that. I have to do it for Paul.”
For Bass, creating his own personal portrayal of Angel is about honesty and integrity. “Playing a role, playing any role, is about finding the truths and applying them to the character,” said Bass. “It’s about pushing yourself. And for this role, it’s about pushing myself to a level that allows me to connect with the role on a very personal level. Angel makes no apologies and takes no prisoners. She’s bold, she’s daring, and she’s unafraid to be exactly who she is.”
“The dichotomy between the two characters is incredible,” said Matt Starika-Jolivet, Co-Director with MPT. “Paul is so scared to be honest and open, not only with himself, but with those around him. It takes every bit of his being to open up about who he is. Whereas Angel is the complete opposite, she’s out and she’s proud. She has absolutely no qualms about who she is.”
While the two shows have yet to open, both Bass and Ingraham are already hard at work. “I’m hitting the music over and over again,” said Ingraham. “A Chorus Line is a very demanding show. I’m doing vocal coaching and dance workshops. You name it, I’m doing it.”
“I’m spending a lot of time looking at videos of past performances and reading up on the character to get a good feel for who Angel is,” said Bass. “I’ve also been reading up on the AIDS epidemic and learning about what it was like for people suffering from this disease in the ‘80s and ‘90s.”
And along with the usual preparations of character development, the two are looking into more unusual ways to prepare themselves. “I’m going to local drag shows and even have plans to go out in drag,” said Bass. “I think just learning to walk in heels convincingly is going to be a big challenge for me.”
“I just feel so blessed to be a part of this,” commented Ingraham. “I think these shows are going to be the best things that have ever come out of MPT and audiences are going to just be blown away.”
Rent opens on June 27 and runs through July 5, and A Chorus Line runs August 8 through August 12 with both shows offering matinee performances. Tickets are now on sale and can be purchased through brownpapertickets.com. Season ticket discounts are available. For more information on these productions and on Middleton Players Theatre, you can visit their website at middletonplayers.com.