“Mark, Mark, I’m Mark.” (My apologies to those of you not familiar with the lyrics of “RENT” but I just couldn’t resist.)
OK, clearly I’m not Mark but I did have a chance to talk to the man who gets to play Mark in the upcoming local performance of “RENT” at The Lab.
Reid Harmsen is a name you may recognize. After studying musical theatre at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Harmsen hit the Minneapolis theatre scene with performances at The Guthrie and the Minneapolis Musical Theatre. Oh yeah, and he also performed in two sold-out runs of Disney’s “High School Musical.”
Besides looking perfect for the role, Harmsen said he’s got a number of reasons to be excited to play one of the lead roles in the ever-iconic Broadway smash. As I told you before, this rendition is a new, completely local effort — and from the level of Harmsen’s energy when talking about the production, it sounds like it’s not one to miss.
What’s it like playing the role of Mark and what are some things you enjoy about the character?
Harmsen: I absolutely love the character Mark. RENT is about a group of friends and he is like the ring leader of the group. He’s very compassionate, loving and sees the good in everyone. Like everyone, he is dealing with his own issues, but he puts them on the back burner and constantly tries to be there for everyone else.
While the Broadway rendition of “RENT” has toured Minneapolis before, what about this local production will make it “new” for the audience? What makes it unique?
Harmsen: I’ve never seen RENT done like this. We’re performing at The Lab Theatre, which was formerly the Guthrie Lab. It’s a big warehouse that we’ve filled with scaffolding and spray paint, bringing a little bit of New York’s east village to Minneapolis. Our director has transformed it into the perfect space for RENT. The audience is literally feet away from us. They’re not just attending the show, they’re experiencing it. It’s the most exciting set up I’ve ever seen for this show and it just feels so right.
It’s also the first time RENT has played professionally in Minneapolis with an all-local cast. The company is incredible. Half of us are actors and the other half are these amazing up-and-coming musicians who blow my mind daily. It’s exactly how RENT should be. A bunch of young versatile artists coming together to put on this amazing piece.
For anyone who’s not familiar with the show, how would you describe the story of Rent?
Harmsen: RENT is a rock phenomenon and tells the story of a group of friends, mostly artists living in New York City in the early 90s. It takes place at the height of the AIDS epidemic and it runs the course of a year, showing their struggles with love, sickness and death. It’s really a show that everyone can learn from and be touched by.
Performing at The Lab is clearly a much more intimate setting. How does that enhance the show for the audience, in your opinion? How does it make it more challenging?
Harmsen: I’ve never seen RENT performed in a space like this. It definitely makes it much more exciting for the audience. There is so much energy on stage and the audience will be able to feel it. Usually there’s almost like a wall between the audience and the actors, but in this case it will be more like we’re all sharing something special together. We’re in their face, they’re in ours. It’s going to be more than a show. It will be an experience.
Personally, what’s your favorite song to perform?
Harmsen: This is a hard question. I’ve been singing these songs with the recording since I was fourteen. I love them all but if I had to narrow it down, I’d say “La Vie Boheme” and the reprise of “I’ll Cover You.” They’re very different numbers but the entire cast is in both of them. In “La Vie Boheme” we’re all playing and feeding off each other having the time of our lives. The “I’ll Cover You Reprise” is a heavier moment in the show. It’s beautiful and I think the audience will be able to feel the love on the stage.
What was your first experience with “RENT” and how did that affect the way you went into this role?
Harmsen: I saw RENT for the first time when I was 13 or 14. It was the first national tour at the Ordway and I was blown away. To this day I have never been affected so much by a show. I instantly connected with the character of Mark and have wanted to play it ever since. It’s my dream role. Going into rehearsal and preparation for the role, I just really tried to remember how much this show impacted me.
Knowing that this would be an introduction to this piece for some people, I want to do everything I can to give an honest and touching performance that hopefully make them feel some of what I did the first time I saw it.
“RENT” runs from Feb. 3 to 21 at The Lab, 700 N.