Arts & Culture

Childhood friends reunite for lead roles in Casa Mañana’s ‘Rent’

John Arthur Greene as “Roger,” Mackenzie Bell as “Maureen,” Noah Putterman as “Mark” and Kalyn West as “Mimi.”
John Arthur Greene as “Roger,” Mackenzie Bell as “Maureen,” Noah Putterman as “Mark” and Kalyn West as “Mimi.”

When Noah Putterman and John Arthur Greene performed in musicals at North Carolina Theatre in Raleigh, before and during their teen years, a friendship quickly formed. And so did a trend.

Putterman often played the good guy; Greene, the bad boy. The good/bad dynamic happened with the title characters of Blood Brothers and the American and Russian chess masters in Chess, to name a few. After North Carolina, they followed different theatrical paths, but are now reunited for their first show together in more than a decade: The rock musical Rent at Casa Mañana.

And, you guessed it, they’re playing to type: Putterman, who is now Casa’s director of children’s theatre and education, plays Mark, the documentary filmmaker and narrator. Greene, who was in West Side Story and Matilda on Broadway and was a pirate in NBC’s Peter Pan Live, is Roger, the guitarist and ex-junkie.

“Knowing John Arthur was doing it made me want to look at it,” says Putterman, who has only been in a few non-children’s productions at Casa since taking the job in 2013. “The idea of doing that good/bad boy thing again, that was an initial selling point for me.”

This is the second time this decade Casa has staged Rent, Jonathan Larson’s groundbreaking and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical. Inspired by Puccini’s La bohème, the musical is about twentysomethings in New York’s East Village in the ’90s, living under the shadow of HIV/AIDS before the advent of life-saving drugs. Larson died the night before the first preview of the musical’s off-Broadway opening in 1996 of an aortic aneurysm.

The show moved to Broadway a few months later, where it ran for 12 years, spawning multiple national tours and international productions. A 2005 movie version starred much of the original cast, including Adam Pascal (Roger), Anthony Rapp (Mark), Idina Menzel (Maureen), Taye Diggs (Benjamin) and Jesse L. Martin (Tom).

This Casa production is directed by Tim Bennett (who also directed it at Casa in 2012), and in addition to Greene and Putterman, features Mackenzie Bell as Maureen, Tyler Hardwick as Angel, Phyre Hawkins as Joanne, Maurice Johnson as Tom and Calvin Scott Roberts as Benjamin.

Childhood rivals

Putterman and Greene both grew up in or close to New York (Greene’s family moved to Plano for a few years when he was a child), and both took an early interest in performing.

Putterman’s grandparents took him to Broadway musicals, and he had been listening to original cast recordings of musicals since he was 7. Greene landed the first commercial he auditioned for at age 8. Both of their families moved to Raleigh and they both began auditioning for musicals at North Carolina Theatre in their ’tweens.

“I was 11 when we met,” says Putterman, who is just more than a year older than Greene.

“I literally had just gotten off the plane, and auditioned and sang This Is the Moment [from Jekyll and Hyde],” says Greene, laughing. “I was 9.”

“I was like ...‘who is this guy?’ ” Putterman says. “That’s when the rivalry and partnership began. Our biggest rivalry was usually over a girl.”

There were both cast in the chorus of Oliver — they both wanted the role of Artful Dodger, but Putterman’s voice had changed so he had pretty much aged out of the lead roles for children — and throughout their teens they shared the stage in Pippin, Godspell and other shows. Wally Jones, now the president and executive producer of Casa, was head of North Carolina Theatre at the time.

After high school, they both pursed careers in the theater. Putterman studied at the University of Minnesota’s prestigious Guthrie Theater training program and then spent two years touring with New York’s The Acting Company, which presents classic works (and has been to Bass Hall). Then Jones, his mentor, called and asked he if would be interested in running the youth programs at Casa.

“As much as I loved acting, I knew there were other things I wanted to pursue in theater: directing, producing and writing,” Putterman says. “I did classical theater and also got a psychology degree; I’ve always been interested in human psychology, which is probably why I liked acting.

“I always played around with wanting to manage a company — Wally let me produce and direct my own production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in North Carolina,” he adds. “But I was at a crossroads. When Wally called it was kismet; at first he thought he was going to have to convince me, but I said yes right away.”

For Greene, it was about following acting. After high school, he landed a role in the European tour of West Side Story, and then was transferred to the Broadway production, playing Riff — still a bad boy (but then so are most of the gang members). He then understudied several roles in Broadway’s Matilda, was cast in Peter Pan Live, and continues to audition in New York and for regional theater.

For Jones, getting them together onstage again for Rent was a no-brainer. “They are both talented, and I’m glad to have them back on my stage,” he says.

Complicated relationship

Their roles in Rent stick with the narrative of their history. Roger and Mark are best friends, and fit the bad boy/nice guy molds. But there’s more to it than that.

“It’s clear that they have a history; they’re not just roommates, they’ve known each other for a long time,” Putterman says. “Mark serves as the narrator of the story so he’s somewhat removed from the story, which he acknowledges. He wants to be involved, but he’s not sure how, so he stands on the outside and documents it. I think Mark is a proxy for Larson, of being in the [East] Village at the time and watching artists die and knowing there isn’t anything he could do except to tell their story.”

“Mark is Jonathan Larson,” Greene adds, “but Roger is the person he always wanted to be. These two guys are different halves of his personality.”

Ultimately, Rent is still a hit because it spoke to a younger generation in a way that hadn’t really happened in a musical since Hair in the 1960s, and arguably hasn’t happened since, with the possible exceptions of Spring Awakening in the 2000s and Hamilton now.

Rent deals with so many relevant things,” Putterman says. “It’s timeless because these struggles are human. It’s about wanting to be loved and feeling appreciated and finding a place.”

For Putterman and Greene, that place is being on the stage together, a small measurement in many years of their lives.

Rent

  • Saturday through March 6
  • Casa Mañana, Fort Worth
  • $41-$76
  • 817-332-2272; www.casamanana.org
  Comments