by Mindy Pedlar
Santa Cruz resident, Kiana Hamzehi plays Mimi with strength and passion “The word I always associate with Mimi is grit,” says Kiana about the character she portrays in RENT. “At a young age she had to switch her life goal from thriving to surviving. She’s an exotic dancer and a drug addict, yet she manages to be confident and courageous. She knows she has limited time left, and she doesn’t want to waste it.”
Some play the character Mimi as just a sex kitten. “In reality,” said Kiana, “Mimi just wants happiness and love. Luckily, my co-star Joey Pisacane (Roger) has been nothing short of perfect to work with and my worries regarding the romantic aspect of the role melted away within the first week of rehearsing.”
RENT is an emotionally powerful show. One of Kiana’s favorite songs in the show is La Vie Bohéme. “We are all celebrating and happy and having a good time. I also love the reprise of I’ll Cover You. It’s one of the saddest moments in the show, but I also feel this immense sense of togetherness with the rest of the cast. I feel like I’m in the middle of a giant group hug. RENT changed musical theater. Its simple message is to love one another.”
The character of Tom Collins, a computer genius, hacker and former MIT professor, is brought to life by Ronald Johnson Jr. Tom is also a gay man living with AIDS. Ronald describes him as “a man with massive intellectual aptitude, who has chosen to center his life around his friends and his happiness. He has a swagger and joy about him that makes light of almost any situation.”
Ronald first saw RENT when he was fifteen years old. He spoke of the similarities between him and his character Tom. Ron’s father, an electronic engineer, taught his son the ins and outs of computer technology at an early age. Ron built his first computer when he was seven years old. He got into programming and html, but even though he had the interest and the aptitude, he knew he was happiest when performing.
Concerning the music, Ron says, “It’s the ensemble work that really resonates with me. We all have pieces of the song that are absolutely essential, and when every piece gets added, it becomes a truly remarkable performance.”
Ron credits Director, Dustin Leonard, Musical Director, Mickey McGushin and Choreographer Brance Souza with illuminating the hopeful, positive messages of RENT. “The audience can expect to witness something enjoyable, but full of impact. There is no way that you can walk out of the theater not being affected by at least one character’s story. The author of this masterpiece died creating it, making the underlying message of this show important and relevant in any year or era.”
With a big, beautiful voice Brianne Lopez-Cole portrays the Ivy League-educated public interest lawyer, Joanne Jefferson. “I’m the only one in the group who actually pays her rent.”
In her first Cabrillo Stage production, Brianne is honored to be part of this cast. “I feel pushed and challenged to grow as a performer. RENT is more than a musical, it shares an important message.” Brianne describes her character as, “a successful lawyer who remains grounded and humble despite her status. She is always there for her friends.” Joanne is excellent at balancing her work and everyday life. “She’s always on the go and in control, except when it comes to her relationship with Maureen.”
Played by Vinh Nguyen with a thoughtful but vivacious flair, his character, Angel Schunard, has a Zen-like understanding of the world. “Portraying this larger-than-life character (in drag no less) has been a challenging, yet immensely exhilarating experience. Angel is the role model I never knew I needed.” Vinh describes her as kind, loving, resilient and generous, qualities he strives for in his personal life, yet “she’s also vibrant and incredibly fearless.”
After receiving his MFA degree in Musical Theatre from San Diego State University, Vinh looks forward to broadening his career as a performer, educator, and director. He was in CHICAGO two summers ago and finds it wonderful to “bookend” his graduate school experience with another Cabrillo Stage production.
Vinh’s favorite song in the show is I’ll Cover You, a duet. However, the most fulfilling number for him is Without You even though he’s not singing. “Under Dustin Leonard’s brilliant staging, it becomes the most emotionally demanding moment for me in the whole show. You’ll have to come see RENT to find out why.”
See RENT, now playing at the Cabrillo Crocker Theater on the Cabrillo College campus through July 15. Order tickets on line at cabrillostage.com or by calling the box office 831-479-6154. Box office hours are 12 to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Tickets can be purchased for both RENT and THE PRODUCERS Mel Brooks’ hilarious musical comedy from July 26 to August 19 at a discounted Season price.