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North Fork Community Theatre production of ‘Rent’ has local connection

When it comes to theater, the old saying goes, there are no small parts.

That’s especially true of Gordon, the character Alicia Rignola plays in the upcoming North Fork Community Theatre Youth on Stage production of the rock musical “Rent.”

While Gordon doesn’t offer the biggest role in terms of lines or on-stage appearances, “it’s really significant,” said Ms. Rignola.

That significance was underscored last Wednesday — just eight days before the opening-night curtain goes up — when co-producer Mary Motto Kalich dropped a bombshell on cast members returning from a break. She told them she had recently learned that Gordon is based on the late Gordon Rogers, who lived in Cutchogue and had been a member of the Youth on Stage program. The musical’s creator, Jonathan Larson, was a friend of Mr. Rogers, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1992 and died in 1995, said Ms. Motto Kalich. The real-life Gordon was the inspiration for the fictional Gordon.

Having heard that hard dose of reality, Ms. Rignola, 18, of Speonk, said, “I was kind of a little shocked.”

Michael Krulder, 20, of Riverhead, who plays one of the leading roles, said, “I was like blown away.”

Gordon Rogers as the Wizard in a 1980 Youth on Stage production of “Once Upon a Mattress” at North Fork Community Theatre.

“Rent,” which premiered on Broadway in 1996, is loosely based on the opera “La Bohéme” and won the 1996 Tony Award for best musical and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the story is about a group of impoverished young artists and musicians in Manhattan’s East Village dealing with drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, other hardships, love and living for today.

North Fork Community Theatre’s production of “Rent” debuts tonight, July 21, with the first of 12 performances running through Aug. 7.

The longest-running theater on eastern Long Island (opening in 1958), North Fork Community Theatre moved to its current Mattituck location in 1962. The volunteer-operated theater presents three musicals and two plays a year, said Ms. Motto Kalich. The Youth on Stage program is made up of young people ages 14 to 22.

The show features 18 actors, with a supporting crew and production team of up to about 45 people. Another 40 people or so will help with other things, working as ushers, handling refreshments and staffing the box office, said Ms. Motto Kalich.

In playing the principal role of Roger Davis, Mr. Krulder said he has the most stage time of anyone in the cast. “It’s such an important show to a lot of people, and to be just a part of it is such an honor,” he said.

“[This] is a show that’s got a lot of layers to it,” he continued. “It’s got its happy, uplifting moments, but it’s also extremely deep and extremely emotional. I feel like when it comes to ‘Rent,’ the audience is going to find themselves in at least one character. It doesn’t matter who it is. It doesn’t matter who’s sitting in the audience. They’re going to relate to at least one person. I think that’s what initially brought so many people to the show. It’s so relatable.”

Asked how she thinks the audience will react to the show, Ms. Rignola said: “I think they’re definitely going to be shook. They’re going to be shooken up a little bit. That’s all I’m going to say. With any show, but this show specifically, it’s really emotional, and they’re really going to connect with the characters and feel what they’re feeling.”

Ms. Motto Kalich said she was so taken by “Rent” that she saw it about 12 times on Broadway.

“For me, it symbolized when I lived in New York City,” she said. “When ‘Rent’ came out, it was a phenomenon.”

Sarah Scarbrough, 23, of Wading River, is the co-director (along with Joel Ehrlich) as well as the choreographer. She said she was excited to take on her first directing gig, “but also a little intimidated because it’s such a well-known show that a lot of people have a strong attachment to … I knew there was a lot of material to work with.”

By tonight’s curtain-raiser, 33 rehearsals will have been held since the first one on May 31, according to Ms. Scarbrough.

As opening night approached, she acknowledged she probably will not be able to rest easy until after the actors take their final bows. And she’s probably not the only one.

“I would say it’s just a mixture of excitement and being completely on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” said Mr. Krulder.

Ms. Rignola had auditioned for the role of Mimi, for which she serves as understudy. But with more females than males available, she found herself cast as Gordon.

“I was confused,” she said, “but I was like, ‘Well, this is the role I have so I have to just figure it out, I guess.’ That’s really how I looked at it.”

Does she feel added pressure playing Gordon, given the connection to Mr. Rogers?

“Yes, because I do want to do him justice,” she said. “Even though I never knew him personally, I want to make it known that he was a significant character.”

Mr. Krulder said, “I think part of my performance wants to honor him and honor what he did at this theater, what he did for theater in general.”

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