Steve Maloney was 16 years old when he first appeared on a TaDa! Events stage as a featured guest in the first production of “Our Divas Do Christmas.”
A voice student at the time, he says he landed the gig through his teacher, Julia Halfyard, and sang two Christmas songs with the “Divas” cast.
After doing a couple of musical theatre shows in high school, Maloney turned to songwriting and recording, eventually finding success as a solo artist and with his band, The Wandering Kind.
Recognized for his unique, smooth, retro-tinged vocals, Maloney is well-known as a singer/songwriter, spanning the genres of folk, country, pop and more. He is an East Coast Music Awards nominee and a multiple MusicNL Awards winner, and was named winner of this year’s Borealis Music Prize for his most recent album, “The Memory Game.”
When TaDa! held auditions last fall for their production of “Rent,” Maloney walked in through the door. Director Terri Andrews remembered him — and his voice — from years ago and was interested in hearing him read and sing for the part of Roger, the musical’s lead male.
“We knew he could hit the notes, but it was a matter of whether he could capture the essence of the role,” Andrews says. “His raw, gut instinct is very, very good. We said to him, ‘We were together the first time you sang onstage, let’s be together when you do your first musical.”
Maloney, in between performing and recording music in recent years, found a renewed interest in acting and started doing background work on TV productions such as “Frontier,” “Caught” and “Little Dog,” as well as some summer theatre work with Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland. He never felt he had the courage or confidence to audition for a main-stage musical theatre production before, he says, but was inspired by those opportunities.
“I figured it was worth a shot,” Maloney says.
Though it has a smaller cast than TaDa! is used to, “Rent” is one of the company’s most ambitious projects to date.
Loosely based on Puccini’s “La Bohème,” “Rent” is one of the longest-running Broadway musicals, opening in 1996 and closing in 2008. The show has seen a run in London’s West End, an off-Broadway revival, touring productions and a 2005 feature film, among other versions, and “Rent” won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as four Tony Awards.
Creator Jonathan Larson switched the 1800s Paris backdrop of “La Bohème” with New York’s East Village in the late 1980s, but kept the focus on the lives of a group of poor young artists. Larson replaced Puccini’s tuberculosis with HIV/AIDS.
As Roger, Maloney plays a struggling songwriter and rock musician who is HIV positive, hoping to write at least one more meaningful song. He’s been hurt in the past and it weighs on him, and he often fears he has lost his creative energy. Sometimes he’s sullen; other times he’s expressive and passionate. It’s a role that requires not only singing skills, but significant acting depth.
“I think there are a lot of similarities between Roger and me, likely for the songwriter and artist aspect,” Maloney says. “I just saw a lot of myself in Roger.
“It’s been really cool for me. A lot of the vocal range for Roger is at the top of the range I’m in most of the time in my own music. There’s not much wailing in my music, but Roger does a fair bit of wailing, so it’s been cool to really open up vocally onstage.”
Sabrina Roberts plays Mimi, an exotic dancer and heroin addict who is also HIV positive. She falls in love with Roger, who isn’t able to commit to her.
Once Maloney was cast, Andrews included him in the process of selecting an actress to play Mimi. There were a few strong contenders, she says, so it came down to chemistry with Maloney.
Along with Maloney and Roberts are Andrew Williams, Chris Adams, Dan Lasby, Gita Wigdorchik, Kara Noftle and Keith Roberts, playing the rest of the group of young artists struggling to survive in the East Village.
“It’s very much intimidating,” Maloney says of playing the lead. “It’s a big stage with a lot of lights. Fortunately, it’s a lead role, but the show is very much ensemble-based. It takes a lot of the pressure off. It’s really been a huge a pleasure and an honour to be a part of this show with this cast and the band and the directors, who’ve let me crash their party.”
Pamela Pittman is the show’s choreographer, and was tasked, according to Andrews, with coming up with something unique for TaDa! shows. There aren’t really any groups of dancers doing choreographed moves, Andrews says. Instead, there are little bits of dancing or choreographed movement that may be as simple as the characters moving to the beat that’s in their head as they get their drug fix.
When it comes to the set, TaDa! has partnered with Karl Simmons, technical director at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, as well as locally-based industrial contracting company Roth Lochston Constructors to come up with the most intricate and functional backdrop it has ever had.
“There’s no wood masquerading as metal,” Andrews explains. “We have a set with concrete and brick and steel, built to offshore code.”
Weekly rehearsals for “Rent” began last fall, with the cast and musicians nailing down the musical numbers before moving on to the staging. With Andrews at the helm, Kelly-Ann Evans is assistant director of the show, in preparation for TaDa!’s next big endeavour: a two-week run of “We Will Rock You,” a musical based on the songs of Queen. Evans performed with the original Canadian cast of the show as part of the ensemble and understudy for the Killer Queen role, and the hope is that she will step in as stage director for TaDa!’s version a year from now.
“‘Rent is a technically huge show,” Andrews says. “‘We Will Rock You’ is bigger again.”
“Rent” will run at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre from Thursday to Saturday night. Tickets are $68 ($42 for students), including HST and service charge, and are available at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre box office, by calling 729-3900 and online at www.artsandculturecentre.com . “Rent” is suggested for audience members over age 16, due to language and subject matter.