Seeing the amazing cast of Quad City Music Guild’s “Rent” pour out their hearts and talents during the iconic “Seasons of Love” while playing from the orchestra pit is a gratifying feeling beyond words.

A view of “Seasons of Love,” at the top of Act 2 in Music Guild’s “Rent,” with the full cast at the front of the stage.

I have had the thrill of a lifetime serving as assistant music director and accompanist for this beautiful rock musical, which opens Friday, March 24 at the Prospect Park Auditorium, 1584 34th Ave., Moline. Kicking off Guild’s 75th season, Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” means so much to every person involved, for different reasons, including me.

Forty-three years after playing piano for my first musical (“Carousel” in high school in Milwaukee), and over 27 years after moving to the Quad Cities, this will finally be my Music Guild debut. I have long admired this community theater, as I am a huge fan of Broadway musicals and for many years have written about Guild shows for my full-time job as a journalist.

I have seen QC productions of “Rent” (I love its dazzlingly diverse score) at the former Harrison Hilltop and District theaters, as well as the 2005 movie that reunited many of the original Broadway cast. This is the largest local production of “Rent” (its first time at Music Guild) and it came about because of my connection with its passionate, thoughtful and compassionate director, Jeff Ashcraft.

Director Jeff Ashcraft, right, in rehearsal with Tim Dominicus, who plays Roger.

A QC theater veteran, he was directing a wonderful production of the equally touching musical “The Secret Garden” at Guild in early 2020, for which I filled the same role, but I never got to practice in the pit. That ideal cast had the show stolen from them two weeks before opening night (March 13, 2020), when the Guild board was forced to cancel due to COVID.

I had lost my newspaper job the previous week, so the show loss was especially heartbreaking. Now, that giant hole in my heart has at last been filled.

Ashcraft generously asked me to return to play for “Rent,” this year’s spring show, which held auditions in mid-January and started rehearsals Feb. 8. At the first meeting of the cast and crew, the director asked people to respond to the question, “Why ‘Rent’?” I could tell from the start, that this is a special show for so many people.

Jonathan Turner is assistant music director and accompanist for “Rent.”

Many in the cast said they’ve been waiting to do this show their whole lives; one said it was his generation’s “Hamilton”; one said it gave her the courage to come out; others have spoken of its inspiration and embodiment of true community.

One of my favorite parts of musical theater is that community. Since high school, each show bonds everyone involved so closely, and you all are united in the tremendous honor and excitement of telling a story as faithfully and powerfully as possible.

Katie Griswold — a 2020 Augustana grad and member of the enthusiastic ensemble (listen for her stupendous solos soar in “Seasons of Love”) — said in Music Guild’s occasional online “Meet Me” features that she first saw “Rent” at 15 and she felt like one meaning of its title (“rent” or being torn asunder).

Katie Griswold in rehearsal for “Rent.”

“I left that show feeling changed, like someone had ripped me apart and put me back together again,” Griswold said. “From that moment on, theater to me isn’t just actors on a stage, but a community coming together to tell a story with a message, and RENT is a prime example of this.”

An action-packed year

Based on Puccini’s beloved 1896 opera La BohèmeRent follows the ups and downs of a year in the life of a group of impoverished, artistic friends living in Manhattan’s East Village, under the shadow of homelessness, drug use and HIV/AIDS. “Rent” is about falling in love, finding your voice and living for today (its tag line is “No day but today.”).

It follows its source material not just in characters and themes, but Larson truly wrote a rock opera — there is very little straight dialogue. The 42-number score offers nearly continuous music during the entire emotional roller-coaster. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “Rent” has become a pop cultural phenomenon, with incisive songs that rock, burrow into your soul, and an electrifying story that resonates with audiences of all ages.

Principal characters in “Rent” are played by (L-R) Kira Rangel, Myka Walljasper, Keenen Wilson, Tim Dominicus, and Chase Austin.

The physical and emotional complications of HIV/AIDS pervade the lives of Roger, Mimi, Tom and Angel. Maureen deals with her chronic infidelity through performance art; her partner, Joanne, wonders if their relationship is worth the trouble. Benny has sold out his Bohemian ideals in exchange for a hefty income and is on the outs with his former friends. Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, feels like an outsider to life in general. How these young bohemians negotiate their dreams, loves and conflicts provides the narrative thread to this groundbreaking musical, according to Guild’s summary.

It’s been a great, invigorating process to work with Music Guild music director Mitch Carter, who is by far the most organized, thorough and detail-oriented music director I’ve ever seen. In his mini-profile, he said that part of what makes “Rent” so powerful is that people can see some of themselves in each of the characters.

Mitch Carter, left, and Jonathan Turner share a laugh in rehearsal.

Carter identifies most with young filmmaker Mark Cohen, here wonderfully played by Chase Austin. Carter sees himself in Mark’s “quirkiness, his demeanor, his relationship with the community around him, his devotion to his craft — particularly using his craft as an escape mechanism from the world around him,” he said.

Among the countless cast stories, the performers of Joanne (Myka Walljasper) and Angel (Gary Mayfield) are both veterans of the student “Rent” production in 2011 by Rock Island’s Center for Living Arts.

DeMario Rankin and Adrienne Evans in the “Rent” ensemble.

The daughter of full-time theater artists, Walljasper said that version was the first show she and her wife (current “Rent” stage manager Kelsey Walljasper) did together. “The story of the queer community, epidemic of AIDS that was ignored by the government and the community of artists is such an important story,” Myka said.

Like many, “Seasons of Love” (the Act 2 opener) is her favorite song, due to its hopeful message.

“The world is a pretty chaotic, hot mess right now,” Myka said. “There is so much negativity, hatred and evil. We need to remind ourselves to measure with love. Be the love. Be the kindness. Be the change we need in this world.”

Director’s message

That 2011 production directly inspired Ashcraft to take on “Rent,” after his daughter recommended it.

The Center for Living Arts showcased “a bunch of energized teenagers telling the story with heart and genuine depth, and between my daughter’s enthusiasm and the power of these kids – ‘Rent’ finally clicked for me,” the director wrote for the Guild program.

“As I’ve gotten deeper into directing ‘Rent,’ it’s been absolutely amazing how many people I’ve run into that know this show, and more importantly love this show,” Ashcraft said, noting people say that “Rent” is about “deep, authentic, soul-crushing love – full stop – no further explanation needed.”

Director Jeff Ashcraft, left, listens with other crew members to Janet Charleston (the late Jonathan Larson’s girlfriend) speak at Guild March 17, 2023 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

I totally agree with his next point — “For me, ‘Rent’ is also about healing. All of us have something in our lives we wish to restore or revive, and this story introduces the audience to a bunch of struggling artists and outcasts who are damaged, devastated, and dejected looking for redemption in a world that doesn’t seem to care for or about them.

“Set against the backdrop of New York’s East Village during the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, somehow these broken souls are able to capture the human essence in an environment most of us can never comprehend,” Ashcraft wrote. “And through it all, we literally fall in love with their raw and, at times, damning relatability. In spite of their dysfunction, these contemporary lepers are able to achieve what so many of us search for — light, acceptance, love, and healing from their community – their family.

“I am overwhelmed by the talent that has come together to produce ‘Rent,'” Ashcraft’s note says. “The artists who have gathered on stage and behind the scenes are some of the best the Quad Cities has to offer. The entire production team has poured out their time, their treasure, and their hearts to tell this story, and we are humbled and honored to be a part of Quad City Music Guild’s 75th season.”

As Tom Collins, Keenen Wilson sings the emotional “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” in Act 2.

He hopes “Rent” will touch your heart in unexpected ways. “Maybe it will help you to accept others or feel accepted. Maybe you will be inspired to love more fiercely, or just maybe it will mend a small hole in your heart,” Ashcraft wrote.

THAT seems to me so much of what is missing in today’s world — acceptance, welcoming and love. We are so bitterly divided in our society today, even COVID became a political issue, for God’s sakes.

This show also resonates in the COVID era, since this virus has been much more contagious and devastating than AIDS — since early 2020, 1.13 million Americans have died of COVID, while over 700,000 perished from AIDS since the 1980s.

The “Rent” memorial wall includes photos of Stephen Sondheim, Jonathan Larson (left, black and white); me and my mom (center); former longtime Guild volunteers Martha and Jerry Taylor (upper right) and the late veteran director Bob Williams (lower right).

One of my favorite touches that Ashcraft and his wife (set designer) Crista added to the new production is a memorial wall (on the left as you look at the stage), since a good deal of the show’s profound impact is due to loss. We all were invited to bring a photo or drawing of a lost loved one (or anyone special to us), and the director wanted to cover that wall.

I brought photos of “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson (who died shortly before the show’s first Off-Broadway preview); his mentor, Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021), and an old photo of my mom (1941-2016), with me as a little boy.

The cast and a special visit

The Music Guild cast features Tim Dominicus (Roger); Chase Austin (Mark); Keenen Wilson (Collins); Michael Dunn (Benny); Myka Walljasper (Joanne); Gary Mayfield (Angel); Kira Rangel (Mimi), and Abbey Donohoe (Maureen), with the ensemble comprised of Rishem Bhogal, Drew DeKeyrel, Cody Dutton, Adrienne Evans, Katie Griswold, Julie Hummel, Stephanie Moeller, Valeree Pieper, DeMario Rankin, Em Schwartz, Robert Warner, Amber Whitaker, Jay Whitmore, and Joe Wren.

We were all treated to an unexpected visit from a woman intimately connected to the show on Friday, March 17. (Yes, tears were shed and group hugs were had.)

Janet Charleston (top center) with the “Rent” cast and crew, March 17, 2023.

More than 27 years after the love of her life created one of the most beloved rock musicals ever, Janet Charleston saw the show in her hometown for the first time. She’s longtime friends with Music Guild veteran Val Pieper.

A 64-year-old native of Rock Island, Charleston watched us do a dress rehearsal of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” with her father last Friday. She dated Larson from 1989 to 1993 and then 1994 until his death in the early morning hours of Jan. 25, 1996 (at age 35 of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm), the day of its first off-Broadway preview in New York.

Michael Dunn, left, as Benny, with Chase Austin as Mark.

Tragically, Larson never get to see his triumph — “Rent” ran on Broadway 12 years, the 11th longest-running show in Broadway history, and has been performed around the world.

“It was beautiful. The show is about love,” Charleston told the cast and crew after their full run March 17, a week before its formal opening March 24. “You did it so beautifully; the voices are incredible. I’ve seen it so many times, but I’d never seen it in my hometown. I’ve lived in New York City my whole adult life and that’s where I lived with Jonathan, and he never came here with me.”

Charleston with Jonathan Larson in March 1989.

“You’re doing a wonderful job; I wish I could come many times,” she said. “You got it.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing her — she is so warm, giving, unpretentious and sincere. Having her in the audience made playing for the show many times more meaningful. I will treasure this experience (including our performances over the next two weekends) for the rest of my life. (Thank you, Jeff, for your faith in me.)

See a brief promo video for the show HERE.

“Rent” will be performed March 24 through April 2, on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Admission is $20 for adults and $15 for students. For tickets and more information, call 309-762-6610 or visit the Guild website HERE.