- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

NEW YORK — There are at least six versions of "La Boheme" on Broadway. Baz Luhrmann's new production of Puccini's opera features three sets of lead actors and two sets of actors in supporting roles who perform on a rotating basis.
The unusual arrangement creates a show that has a different look and sound depending on which night you see it.
"We're all trying to do our own thing," says Wei Huang, one of the three actresses playing Mimi, the female lead. "We have a similar structure to our performances, but lots of small details are different."
The singing and acting vary, of course, but other aspects of the show change too. Different actors wear different costumes, individually tailored to their personalities, and the conductor alters the pace of the musical accompaniment depending on who is singing.
Variety was not Mr. Luhrmann's goal in casting the show with rotating players. It was a matter of simple necessity. Traditional opera houses schedule only a few performances over a period of several weeks to allow voices ample time to recover between shows.
Mr. Luhrmann's production, by contrast, will be running a typical Broadway schedule of eight performances a week through March. Not even the strongest opera voice could handle that workout.
Finding and preparing three casts was one of the most challenging aspects in bringing the $6.5 million production to Broadway. For one thing, it inflated the budget for the show, which has the largest cast payroll of any production on Broadway, according to producer Jeffrey Seller.
It also required an epic, two-year casting effort that saw more than 2,000 performers audition.
"It was like trying to find alluvial gold," Mr. Luhrmann says. "We sifted a lot of sand."
First, he found David Miller, one of the actors playing the male lead of Rodolfo. The young performer immediately impressed him. "He was someone who truly looked the character, could act and is one of the very hot vocalists around," Mr. Luhrmann says.
Those were the three criteria the "triple threat," in Mr. Luhrmann's words by which he judged all the candidates: They had to look like their characters and be able to sing and act equally well.
In a typical opera house production of "La Boheme," brilliant singing is the lone casting consideration; looking the part and having acting skills are beside the point. As a result, the leads are usually played by well-established singers in their 30s, 40s or 50s, although Puccini's characters are in their 20s.
In the Broadway show, the leads are all 30 or younger. The decision to cast young players was based on both artistic and financial considerations.
"This is an opera about twentysomething Bohemians living the impoverished Bohemian life in the garrets above Paris," says producer Kevin McCollum. "In more conventional productions, you'll see a Rodolfo who's 40 and a Mimi who's in her mid-30s who sings marvelously but who's pushing 200 pounds. You get a great musical performance but as an audience you don't necessarily connect."
From a marketing standpoint, Mr. Seller says, it's important to have young, vibrant singers to attract an audience that isn't typically interested in opera.
Once Mr. Luhrmann had selected three Mimis and three Rodolfos, he and his team decided, based on vocal compatibility and chemistry, which pairs fit best together.
Lisa Hopkins, for example, was paired with Jesus Garcia. "I think Jesus and I just played off of each other really well," Miss Hopkins says. "We found a lot of humor in the roles that you normally don't see between Mimi and Rodolfo."
When the cast was set, Mr. Luhrmann had formed an international group of leads: three Americans, the others British, Russian and Chinese.
The duos rehearsed mostly separately, so that each actor could develop a unique take on the role and a rapport with his or her partner. As a result, rehearsals dragged on for seven weeks, almost twice as long as a normal Broadway rehearsal schedule.
"I don't think any of us realized how difficult it would be to give equal time to each Mimi and Rodolfo, to let them go on the same exploration of getting to know their characters," says David Crooks, the assistant director. "That psychologically took more than Baz imagined."
"It killed me," says Mr. Luhrmann. "I was on the floor from 10 in the morning to 10 at night with the three casts. It tested me to my extreme."
The Mimis and Rodolfos had to be able to perform outside their primary pairings, too, in case their usual partner ever got sick and couldn't perform. During group rehearsals, Mr. Luhrmann would suddenly call on Mr. Miller to perform opposite Miss Hopkins, for example, often midway through an act.
There also are several understudies for Rodolfo and Mimi (they perform regularly in the ensemble).
"They all had to be able to swap around," Mr. Luhrmann says. "It was like solving a complex mathematical equation."
Because the six principal actors rehearsed together periodically, one actor would sometimes find an idea for his or her own performance in observing another's.
Hopkins recalls watching Mr. Miller and Ekaterina Solovyeva, his Mimi, rehearse a scene from Act 1, in which Mimi and Rodolfo meet and fall in love. It led to a breakthrough in her own performance.
"David gave Ekaterina this look during their embrace, and that was the moment you realized they were falling in love," she recalls. "Jesus and I didn't have a moment like that. So that was something we worked on."
Mr. Miller's performance in that scene, in turn, had been inspired by watching Miss Huang and her Rodolfo, Alfred Boe.
"I watched how they were doing the scene a look here, a shift of the body weight there," Mr. Miller says. "They were actually listening to each other, and for a while I was just acting like I was listening."
The lead actors' performances take on a different flavor depending on the actor playing the painter Marcello and his lover, Musetta, the second leads. Eugene Brancoveanu and Ben Davis play Marcello; Jessica Comeau and Chloe Wright are their respective Musettas.
"I work off what I'm given," says Mr. Boe. "Eugene is a very spontaneous character on stage, very lively. Sometimes paint flies and hits you. Ben is calmer. So I have different reactions."
The music and costumes change, too, according to what performer is onstage.
Musical director Constantine Kitsopoulos uses slightly different tempos for different singers.
"Take Ekaterina," he says. "She is very emotionally intense in Act 3. She tends to sit in the emotion, and she needs me to move her through things a little bit, tempo-wise."
Miss Huang, another Mimi, requires exactly the opposite treatment. "Wei likes to move through things quickly. I end up having to pull her back and say, 'Let's let the audience experience this emotion.'"
The actors' costumes, meanwhile, were designed with their personalities and body types in mind.
"David Miller's leather jacket is very much the classic Marlon Brando bike jacket," explains Catherine Martin, Mr. Luhrmann's wife and the show's co-costume designer and set designer. "Alfred Boe's is much slimmer, like a professional motorcycle jacket.
"It's all about the physical differences of the players. David is very broad; he has an all-American feel about him. Alfred is shorter, agile. He's very comedic and a little self-deprecatory."
One unforeseen plus of having multiple casts, Mr. Luhrmann says, is that people have been seeing the show more than once to compare the performers. At least, that's what happened in San Francisco, where "La Boheme" had a pre-Broadway tryout this fall.
"They argue about which couple was the best," Mr. Luhrmann says, a bemused expression on his face. "That's been a surprise, something we didn't quite expect."

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