The Broadway smash "Rent" has played a significant part in the acting career of Deerfield native Sammy Ferber. Both he and the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical are heading back to Chicago via a 20th anniversary tour that plays an eight-performance run at the Oriental Theatre starting May 9.
"I was born a couple of months after 'Rent' premiered on Broadway," said Ferber, adding that he grew up repeatedly listening to the score since his musical theater-loving mom often played the cast album in the car. "At a very early age, I could hear the first couple of chords of a song and immediately identify it as 'Rent.'"
"Rent"Location: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, May 9-12; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 13; and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 14
Ferber laughs now at how his mother would gloss over his little-kid questions about some of "Rent's" racier lyrics by the late composer/librettist Jonathan Larson. But now he's especially glad he had an early exposure to this adaptation of Puccini's 1896 opera "La Bohème," which was updated by Larson to 1996 New York with its diverse and struggling artists dealing with issues like addictions and AIDS.
Ferber first performed in "Rent" in a 2014 Actors Training Center production at the Wilmette Theatre. Ferber later starred in the leading role of the filmmaker Mark Cohen in "Rent" at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts in early 2016.
"Coincidentally, our show went up right around the time that they were casting the tour," Ferber said. "They actually brought a bunch of us to audition and three of us were called back and actually booked the tour."
On the road since September 2016, Ferber is an ensemble member playing the small roles of AIDS therapy group member Gordon, a drug dealer know as "The Man" and the gentrifying real estate mogul Mr. Grey. Ferber is also the main understudy to play Mark, though he said he hasn't gone on much since his co-star, Danny Harris Kornfeld, has been very healthy.
With two years left to finish his B.F.A. in acting, Ferber is taking a leave of absence from schooling for his first tour. It is non-Equity, which has meant a lot of one-nighters in small towns.
"Yet, those small towns need to hear the message of 'Rent' as much as the big cities," Ferber said. "There could be a kid who is just discovering that he is gay, or someone who is looking (at the drag performer) Angel and realizing that they don't feel right in their bodies. These people can live anywhere, which is why we go to areas like the deep South for people who need this show to escape from their everyday lives."
Conversely, "Rent" has given Ferber the luxury of traveling to Japan. The tour played for three weeks in Tokyo over the holidays.
"We had incredible Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve performances," Ferber said. "If you know 'Rent,' there are lyrics where both the dates are mentioned and we actually delayed the curtain times so everything could play out in real time with the show's characters."
Ferber is particularly looking forward to showing his "Rent" castmates around Chicago. He's also really excited to be performing in Chicago's Oriental Theatre, since that's where he saw "Wicked" as his first big Broadway show.
"I'm amazed that I'll be performing on that same stage that so enamored me as a kid," Ferber said. "It's truly a dream come true."