According to actress Brit West, one of the challenges to playing Mimi in Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical “Rent,” is finding her core and displaying her emotions in a way that makes her come alive.
“Even though I’ve seen the film version of ‘Rent,’ I build my own character,” says West, who will take the stage at Bristol Riverside Theatre May 8 to June 3. “I might have been influenced by the original recording but I have to make Mimi my very own. And that’s what’s so great about playing these iconic roles. They are so huge that you have the opportunity to put your own spin on the character.”
West explains that she played in “Rent” before, but never as Mimi. “She is the romantic lead and actually creates a roller coaster ride of a role that’s much more intense and much more detailed that the other role I portrayed.”
“Rent” is based on Puccini’s opera “La Boheme. “It tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York’s Lower East Side under the shadows of HIV/AIDS.
The musical was first seen in a limited three-week workshop production in 1994. Two years later it had its official opening. Unfortunately, the show’s creator died suddenly the night before the off-Broadway premiere. But the show went on to win many awards, including a Tony award for Best Musical.
“And that’s no surprise,” says West. “There’s a lot of grit to ‘Rent,’ and I think that’s one of the things that keeps audiences coming back. It’s so true to life and a story not often well represented in the mainstream theater. It’s not pretty, and [it’s] sort of in your face, and may come as close to experimental theater than many people have ever seen before.”
And who can forget the music, she asks, with such songs as “Seasons of Love,” “One Song Glory,” “Light My Candle” and others.
West grew up in Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, and admits she always loved performing, although in college she majored in economics.
“As a child in eighth grade, I got to play the role of Sylvia in the play called ‘Sylvia,’” West remembers. “I think that was the defining moment in my life that firmed up my ambition to want to be a performer. And I continued acting in almost every show in school from then on.”
But after graduating from college with a B.A. degree, the desire to act could no longer be denied. And so she followed her original dream.
Among her many credits, West went on to appear in the national touring productions of “Legally Blonde: The Musical” and “Storytime Live!” She also appeared in many regional productions.
She describes herself as a “singer/actress who can move well. I’ve sung in choir all through high school and so I jumped into becoming known as a singer because there’s such a huge market for that in New York. And since I’m building my own career from scratch, I know I have to mold myself to the largest market possible.”
Today, with her equity card in hand and credits that include a sizeable résumé, West says she’s looking forward to “making my Broadway debut by the holidays. That’s really my big goal right now,’ she concludes.
For times and ticket information, call (215) 785-0100.
Ask multi-talented Ben Vereen if he has a favorite role, and he answers quickly.
“For me, employment stands out. Seriously though, I can’t name a single role or a single show as being my favorite. It’s like asking which of my children I like best. And no parent can answer that question. I love them all,” said Vereen, who is set to take the stage at Bristol Riverside Theatre, April 20–22.
At Bristol, the legendary performer will be doing a one-man show titled “Steppin’ Out Live with Ben Vereen,” a blend of artistry and a tribute to Broadway, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and others. The show will feature hit songs like “Defying Gravity,” “My Way,” “Mr. Bojangles” and “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” among others.
“I’ll be sharing stories with the audience, fine tuning the show, and then going on to New York, where ultimately,” said Vereen. “I hope to take it on to Broadway.”
Vereen is certainly no stranger to Broadway, having performed in some of the most notable Broadway productions of all time. A Tony and Drama Desk Award winner for his renowned performance in Bob Fosse’s “Pippin,” Vereen’s other Broadway productions include “Wicked,” “I’m Not Rappaport,” “Chicago,” “Hair” and “Fosse.” among others.
Some of his film appearances include “All That Jazz,” “Sweet Charity,” “Funny Lady” (Golden Globe nomination), “Once Upon a Forest” and more.
Additionally, Vereen has performed in regional theaters, dramas, variety shows and television series, including one of the most highly-acclaimed and enduring series of all time: “Roots.”
Vereen became a household name for his Emmy-nominated performance as Chicken George in the legendary mini-series. And after all these years, who would have thought the series would still be alive and well.
“The series and my role was magnificent and something for which I will always be grateful,” Vereen says. “And today, some 35 years later, we are still talking about it. I just did a show on Oprah looking at it and a documentary for PBS. At the time we did the series I don’t think any of us had any idea the impact it would have on civilization and generations to come. But it’s still going strong thanks to a man named Alex Haley who wrote about things that had to be heard by the world.”
Born in Miami and raised in Brooklyn, Vereen knew he had talents but didn’t take the world of show business seriously until he enrolled at Manhattan’s High School for the Performing Arts.
Upon graduation, others began taking him seriously too. And after decades in the business, receiving a variety of awards, including Entertainer of the Year, Rising Star, and Song and Dance Star Awards from the American Guild of Variety Artists, Vereen is still going strong.
His humanitarian awards include three NAACP Image Awards, an Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award, and a Victory Award. Vereen was recently inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.
Additionally, he has become one of the nation’s most requested speakers, among audiences of al ages, on topics ranging from Black history, art and education, to overcoming adversity. He is also the spokesperson for Start Taking Action Now (STAN), a national effort in his desire to help others through diabetes, the disease that hit him several years ago.
“My goal,” he says, “is to help people understand that they can live well with diabetes if they will just take charge and make a few necessary changes in their lives.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 785-0100.