ERIE, Pa. — Jaret Kelly strutted two steps forward. He laughed.
This was one of his first times preparing for the role of Angel, the drag queen and street musician who is one of the main characters in the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Rent.”
If that were not pressure enough, Kelly had a special audience member on this day: Wilson Jermaine Heredia, the actor who played Angel in both the original Broadway and Hollywood film versions of “Rent.”
“I’m there to remind them where Angel is actually coming from,” Heredia said. “Because he spends most of act one in the Santa Claus outfit, I remind them that that outfit does a lot of the work for them, but you have to remember what Angel is going through and what’s going through his head as the show progresses. He’s really all about unconditional love and happiness, and that’s a choice Angel has made.”
Heredia met with Kelly and other cast members of the Penn State Behrend Studio Theatre’s production of “Rent” last month when he visited the college as part of a special master class. The class was offered through Straight From New York, a New York City-based company that offers performance training opportunities and college audition prep to students interested in acting and musical theatre.
As part of the visit, Heredia worked with the cast members to correct and perfect scenes that were giving the cast trouble. He also critiqued the production as a whole, offering adjustments that the cast could use to maximize their performances.
Kelly, for one, had struggled to fully grasp the Angel character. That’s where the feedback from Heredia was so valuable.
“For me, it was a combination of incredible and terrifying because you want to do the part justice, because you’re performing for someone who has won awards for their performance and who made the character what it is, but on the other hand, you’re just trying to soak up the fact that they are there to help you,” said Kelly, a first-year marketing major. “He was constantly about making us better, not trying to undermine what we’re doing there.”
During the visit, Heredia also performed a special concert alongside the cast members, which was open to the public.
For the well-known “Rent” song “I'll Cover You,” Heredia reprised his role as Angel and partnered with Behrend student Logan Saborsky, who is playing Angel’s partner Collins in the production.
“He did fantastic, just fantastic,” Heredia said. “One of the best parts of doing these master classes is when I get to sing that song with a student.”
Overall, the students agreed that Heredia’s visit made them vastly more confident to take the stage. Since then, all six of the Studio Theatre’s performances of “Rent” have sold out.
“They always tell you don’t meet your idols because they’re not going to be what you think they are, but he was everything I hoped he would be,” Kelly said. “He was very wholesome and kind and dedicated to the art. That says a lot about the show itself, because it’s about Bohemians who are trying to preserve that culture, and he’s doing the same thing.”
The Studio Theatre’s sold-out performances of “Rent” continue through this upcoming weekend, with shows scheduled for Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Curtain time for each show is 7:30 p.m. A Sunday matinee, scheduled for 2 p.m., has also sold out.