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Farewell tour for ‘Rent’ coming to Williamsport

Northcentral Pennsylvania residents have a final opportunity to experience the touring production of a cultural touchstone.

The 25th anniversary farewell tour of “Rent” will share a “final season of love” at Williamsport’s Community Arts Center on Sunday, Oct. 31, at 7:30 p.m.

The Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical became a phenomenon following its Broadway premiere in 1996. Written by Billy Aronson and composed by the late Jonathan Larson, “Rent” follows the lives of a diverse group of artists and friends struggling to find their way in New York City’s East Village during the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s.

Philadelphia native Shafiq Hicks stars in the touring production as Tom Collins, an AIDS-stricken computer geek and anarchist philosophy professor. Below, he discusses his background and what the Williamsport-area audience can expect on Oct. 31.

Shafiq Hicks
Shafiq Hicks

What would surprise people about life on tour?
“People think tour is this fantasyland from reality, riding first class, staying in the best hotels, having your own dressing room. It’s absolutely nothing like that! The most surprising thing is always making sure you are protecting your inner peace and protecting your physical and mental health because the job is taxing on the body and the mind. It’s such a heavy and emotional show that you have to make sure you’re not bringing the characters home with you.”

The pandemic forced the tour to go on hiatus in February of 2020. When did it resume and what has been the audience reaction?
“We resumed rehearsals this past September and went back on the road in early October. We opened in Chicago a few weeks ago. We’re just getting our bearings. The reaction we’ve gotten so far is that people are hungry for musical theater across America, which is really, really exciting.”

What did you do during the tour’s hiatus?
“I decided to keep going with life. I recorded an album, titled ‘Not for the Ordinary,’ with a Philly pianist, Micah Graves. We – along with a slew of other talented artists from Philly – ended up using the quarantine to get the project done. I also opened my own private voice studio. I have students now. It’s crazy. I tried to keep myself as busy as possible and made sure I was meditating and spending time with me.”

You graduated from the High School for Creative and Performing Arts in Philadelphia, so it’s safe to assume you’ve always had a love for performing?
“I’ve been singing since the age of 2, according to my grandmother. She’s the one who trained me the entire way, kind of got the ball rolling on the singing aspect. I did maybe one or two shows in middle school, but it really hit when I got to high school and did my first big musical. It was ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ I got to play Gaston. That was an exciting adventure. Ever since then, I’ve loved it. I love this medium in which I can tell the story with my heart.”

When did you first see “Rent” and what was your reaction?
“The first time I saw ‘Rent’ was actually the movie version. My high school best friend introduced me to the movie. She was like, ‘You have to see this movie, and you have to play this role,’ talking about Tom Collins. That was a bit of foreshadowing. I watched it and fell in love with the story. The story is so juicy and so poignant. The role of Tom Collins – the songs he gets to sing, the community he gets to create and discovering love with Angel – was a beautiful storyline to me as well.”

Rent - farewell tourHow do you describe Tom Collins?
“He’s a professor who just got let go from MIT and is now going to teach at NYU. I think he is one of the most lovable characters in the entire show. Tom is about building a community and making sure his community is OK. He’s always doing things for his friends and other people in general. He also falls in love, for what I think, is the first time.”

What is your favorite number to sing in the show?
The ‘I’ll Cover You’ reprise. I always sing that song as a tribute to my grandmother who passed away. The tribute isn’t I’ll cover her; the tribute is that she covered me. She took us in. Clothed us. Gave us anything we needed. Covered us to the end.”

Can “Rent’s” themes of love and community among diverse individuals resonate in today’s divisive society?
“Absolutely. In this time of racial injustice, bigotry, homophobia and transphobia, the world needs to see a story where people of all walks of life get together for one significant cause and are living with love. I think the world is so tattered right now. We need reassurance that things are going to get better, and that comes with loving others, no matter of creed, gender, age, sexual preference, religion. This show teaches community. This show teaches relationships and growth. This show really teaches friendship and loyalty. But the most important part is love, and what the world needs now is love.”

What’s the feeling at the conclusion of a performance?
“It almost brings me to tears sometimes. I know that the cast and the audience just went on a huge emotional roller coaster of a show, and I just see pure gratitude and love from the audience every time we end. When we take the bow and the lights come on and you can see everybody, you can see the dried-up tears on people’s faces. ‘Rent’ always gets tears and love, but it doubles down when you haven’t had musical theater in a year and a half. That impacts the energy in the room, as well.”

What do you plan to do when the tour concludes in the spring?
“I plan to continue teaching voice lessons and auditioning all throughout the season. If I don’t get booked, I have plans to go back to school and finish my degrees. Just see where life takes me as a young artist!”

For ticket information on “Rent” at the Community Arts Center on Oct. 31, visit the theater’s website or call the box office at 570-326-2424.

The Community Arts Center is a wholly owned subsidiary of Pennsylvania College of Technology. It is one of the top performing arts venues on the East Coast. Since its reopening in 1993, approximately 1.5 million guests have enjoyed over 1,000 productions.

Penn College is a national leader in applied technology education. Email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

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