Becoming Mimi: Skyler Volpe and the Rent anniversary tour

This is how she pays the rent... (sing it with us, you know you want to.)

Rent: The 20th Anniversary Tour

Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. W.C. MacInnes Place, Tampa.

Sept. 19- Sept. 24: Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.



click to enlarge Skyler Volpe as Mimi Marquez in Rent. -
Skyler Volpe as Mimi Marquez in Rent.

Skyler Volpe was little kid when Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent took Broadway by storm. She remembers singing the songs over and over as her mother blasted the original cast album at home and in the car.

It’s been 21 years since Roger, Mimi, Collins, Angel, Maureen and the others first lept onto the stage. Larson never denied that his story about young New Yorkers dealing with issues of abject poverty, blurred sexuality, drug use and the AIDS virus was based, albeit loosely, on Puccini’s beloved opera La Boheme. In fact, Rent made its Off-Broadway debut almost exactly 100 years after the premiere of the Italian masterwork.

Larson collapsed and died of an aneurysm just after the first preview, and was awarded — posthumously — the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Rent won the Tony for Best Musical, and enjoyed a successful 10-year run. Most of the original cast, which included Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin and Adam Pascal, appeared in the 2004 movie version.

Today, Rent is as much of the musical theater firmament as My Fair Lady and the collected works of Rodgers & Hammerstein.

The 20th anniversary tour began in 2016, and its second leg has just begun. The show will visit the Straz Center for the Performing Arts for eight performances Sept. 19-24.

And Skyler Volpe is playing Mimi.

“Mimi Marquez is 19, she’s working as a stripper in an S&M club, she’s HIV-positive and choosing to just have the most fun she possibly can,” Volpe says. “And to live her life as generously as she possibly can. 

“It’s not until she meets Roger that she considers love to be a possibility in what’s left of her life. And it’s also very interesting that she’s still a teenager — she’s not really a full-blown adult — and these are really tough things to be grappling with. So she’s kind of dealing with it as a 19-year-old would.”

Mimi’s raucous “Out Tonight” is one of the show’s most electrifying numbers, but the character also performs several of Larson’s most beautiful, emotionally-charged songs: “Light My Candle,” “Without You” and “Goodbye Love.”

“Fundamentally, Rent is a story about love, and about family, really,” Volpe explains. “All of these characters come from totally different circumstances, and they band together and form their own family. 

“The fact that it’s in the midst of the AIDS crisis is just a circumstance of the setting. A lot of the characters, Roger, Mimi, Angel, they’re dealing directly with their own mortality — but Jonathan Larson could have chosen something else, and I think that Rent would fundamentally be the same play.”

The Straz gig is only the second stop on this leg of the tour. Volpe and the rest of the company recently re-convened for a week of rehearsals in Athens, Ga.

“Over the course of the year, I had kind of developed habits with my character, and with things that I was doing onstage,” Volpe explains. “They were working, and that was great. I had let them become part of the way I was portraying the character in my body and in my voice. And then we went on summer break.

“Coming back into rehearsals, getting back in the room with our creative team, it was really wild. They were like ‘Hey, what is that? Why are you doing that?’ They said ‘Let’s look at that, figure out where it came from, and then try something new.’ And because there’s new people in the cast this year,  that changes everything.”

Volpe’s singing, acting and dancing, pre-Rent, had been pretty much limited to the part of New York where she lived and Connecticut College, where she got her B.A.

So she’s having a blast on this cross-country bus-and-truck tour. 

“What’s been really awesome about touring is I get to see everywhere, pretty much,” she says. “We did one day in Portland, Maine, and it was great. The town was great, and the food was great, and we were only there for 24 hours. Sometimes we do get to explore a little bit and see what’s going on.

“It’s kind of a mixed bag. There are definitely moments where we’ll roll in, do a show that night and then we’ll be rolling out the next morning to do another show in a totally different place. And in those cases, we’re not really even sure where we are. We see the inside of the bus, we see the inside of where we stop for lunch, we see the inside of theater and the hotel.”

Ah, but those nights onstage, holding each other and performing Larson’s life-affirming songs, they make everything worthwhile.

“From the beginning, it’s always been made very clear that everyone who’s part of the production — everyone in the company — is a part of the Rent family. There’s no separation between cast, crew and band. 

“We’re all traveling in two buses, and we’re all in close quarters all the time. Sometimes you bickers and sometimes you argue — and you get over it, because you’re family.”

Kind of like Mimi and her friends.

Bill DeYoung was born in St. Pete and spent the first 22 years of his life here. After a long time as an arts and entertainment journalist at newspapers around Florida (plus one in Savannah) he returned to his hometown in 2014. He is the author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down and the forthcoming Phil Gernhard, Record ManLearn more here.


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Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was born in St. Pete and spent the first 22 years of his life here. After a long time as an arts and entertainment journalist at newspapers around Florida (plus one in Savannah, Ga.) he returned to his hometown in 2014.You’ll find his liner notes in more than 100 CDs by a wide range of artists including...
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