Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes … How do you measure, measure a year?
For Seth Daniel and Shelby Have Productions, it’s been a year of inspiration, incredible musical talent and some sad memories — all representing a resurgence in the local theater community.
Daniel prefers musicals with glitz and glamor like “Chicago,” which he produced pre-pandemic. He wasn’t originally a big fan of “Rent,” but his late partner Andrew Lee Vincent gave him an appreciation for the musical. The two even traveled to New York City to find creator Andrew Larson’s apartment.
“I was listening to cast albums to figure out what show would be a bestseller for this area and what people would want to audition for,” Daniel says. “For five days straight, every time I turned on my radio or Spotify, a song from ‘Rent’ played. I Pulled out the script and read through it and did some research on it. I think this is what everybody needs right now.”
“Rent” is based on the 1896 Puccini opera “La boheme” and is set in the late 1980s/early 1990s amid the AIDS crisis in Manhattan. A group of penniless young artists struggles to survive a cold winter and find love with the threat of death and the disease looming over their heads.
For Daniel, the idea felt like a message from Vincent, a beloved member of the Lafayette theater community and founder of The Tea Sippers Theatre Co., who died by suicide in 2018. “Everything I’ve been doing has been in honor of him, because he taught me a lot once I got to Lafayette,” Daniel says.
SHP’s board of directors came together after “Chicago” and put on “The Rocky Horror Show” last October, so Daniel, who serves as artistic director, had a strong team in place going into auditions for “Rent.” There’s Technical Director Gina Baronne, Stage Manager Casey Robicheaux, Choreographer Emily Istre, Vocal Director Collin Keyser, Music Director Lily Perrett and Stage Manager Chloe Dickerson.
“I knew at least 70 percent of the talent pool and I knew their capabilities, so I knew it could be done,” Daniel says of the production. Baronne says she was surprised at first, but knew that “if we do this, we’re going to go full out and do it right. It’s a wonderful challenge for us and something the community needed.”
“Rent” is essentially an opera and has 42 musical numbers and eight lead characters, so Daniel and Baronne planned eight months for rehearsals instead of the usual two to three-month window for a show.
“I thought, it’s such an emotional piece that we can actually take our time and create art here,” Daniel says. But they weren’t prepared for the level of talent that would show up. “I would put one song over the span of two to three days, and we’d get there on a Sunday and they’d have learned it within an hour. Every song in that book they have learned at max an hour. It’s a great problem to have.”
Michelle Malentina, who performed on Sept. 14 at Acadiana Center for the Arts, plays Mimi, an erotic dancer with HIV. Daniel had her in mind specifically for the part, and she immediately accepted. Angel, a drag queen with AIDS, meets Mimi in Act II on New Year’s Eve. She is played by Semisi Halafihi, who Daniel knew from the local drag scene. This is her first theatrical production, and Daniel describes her singing as having the capacity to “outbelt Meryl Streep.”
The rest of the cast includes Jason LeBlanc as Roger Davis, Robicheaux as Mark Cohen, Josiah Price as Tom Collins, Matthew Godfrey as Benny Coffin, Logan Tauzin as Maureen Johnson and Logan Domingue as Joanne Jefferson. They represent a mix of seasoned performers and newcomers. LeBlanc is used to being on stage as the lead singer of band Drood, but this will be his first theater performance, and Price made his local directing debut in “The Juneteenth Story” over the summer.
During a recent Tuesday evening rehearsal at Bolt Downtown, the cast began by doing partner exercises and then all sat at the bar to discuss character development with Daniel and Baronne. Halafihi talked about Angel’s motivation to just stay alive. Several cast members debated where in New York City the characters live and whether they are actually homeless.
Daniel reminds them that during this time in the city there were a lot of rundown empty buildings for squatting. He suggests they watch “Tick, Tick… Boom!,” the 2021 biographical musical about Larson’s life, for inspiration.
Malentina brings up the theme of climate against humanity and says it’s important to note that the story is happening during winter, so the characters are looking for both shelter and hope.
Daniel equates the AIDS crisis to “Covid times 200,000. You’re not just getting up there and putting on a show,” he tells the cast. “You’re bringing this to life.”
Rehearsals will continue during the leadup to opening night Nov. 30 at Wonderland Performing Arts on Johnston Street. The show can’t move into the Wonderland theater until three days before opening, so it will be a mad rush to install the two-story set, finalize stage direction and rehearse on stage. The show will run for two weekends through Dec. 10.
SHP is raising money in advance for the production with RENT Fest, a fundraiser scheduled for Sept. 30 at Blue Moon Saloon. Daniel says rights to musicals have gone up, along with material costs to create the set. RENT Fest will include a gumbo cookoff, art vendors and live entertainment (including a cabaret show with Malentina and a drag show) throughout the day.
In addition to raising funds, RENT Fest is a chance to showcase local talent and the current state of the theater community in Lafayette. Daniel estimates there are half a dozen troupes operating right now but says there used to be twice as many.
“I remember when I first got to Lafayette [in 2014], there were two to three shows per weekend, and every weekend it was a constant battle of what show could you catch and which show you would have to miss,” Daniel recalls. “Now that it’s back and kicking, there’s a lot of theater happening in Acadiana.”