By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Nov 12, 2009 at 9:04 AM
Mary Martin played Peter Pan in her 40s. Dame Judith Anderson toured the U.S. as Hamlet in her 70s.

So don't tell Adam Pascal that at 39 he is too old to play the HIV-positive musician-songwriter Roger in the current national tour of "Rent." But he does acknowledge during a phone interview, "I think that after 40, I don't want to be doing it."

The Bronx native is safe. The tour, which stops at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts during Thanksgiving week, ends in February, eight months shy of the actor hitting the Big 4-0.

Pascal created the role of Roger off-Broadway in early 1996, received a Tony nomination for his portrayal of the character after the musical moved to Broadway, and went on to star in the show in London. He  reprised Roger in the film version of "Rent."

Anthony Rapp, who portrayed Roger's roommate Mark on and off-Broadway and in the movie, is also in the cast that will perform in Uihlein Hall.

"Rent" is the late Jonathan Larson's contemporary take on the 19th-century "La Boheme" novel and play about young starving artists. The plot spawned the popular Puccini opera, and Larson gave the story a rock score and moved it to the lower East Side of Manhattan in the ‘90s for his musical.

Although the characters are in their 20s or barely 30, Pascal said the kindness of Mother Nature and the magic of theater have kept Rapp and him looking appropriately youthful. "Nobody would question our age by looking at us onstage," he declared.

Pascal was more rocker than actor when he auditioned for the off-Broadway workshop of "Rent" in the mid-‘90s, and he believes he is a better musical theater performer now than when he was riding the first wave of fame.

"The show became so huge so fast. There were so many surrounding issues that penetrated every aspect of that show. Our voices were trashed. We sounded like crap half the time. We were in an atmosphere that was very distracting," said Pascal, whose abrupt stardom was reflected in an appearance on Newsweek's cover.

Among those issues was creator Larson's sudden death from an aortic aneurysm the night before the off-Broadway opening of "Rent."

"Don't get me wrong, the experience of being in ‘Rent' was amazing," Pascal continued, "but any kind of hysteria around a performer is distracting."

Pascal followed "Rent" on Broadway with a brief stint in a revival of "Cabaret," and then he spent three and a half years in the Elton John musical "Aida." That long run turned him into a seasoned musical theater professional. Pascal was able to settle into a sturdy hit that was not fraught with hysteria.

"I learned how to maintain myself," he said. That included such details as taking care of his voice and keeping a sharp focus on the demands of eight performances a week.

The seeds for Pascal and Rapp appearing in the current national tour of "Rent" were planted in 2007 when they returned to the Broadway production for 10 weeks and enjoyed the experience. The prospect of touring together in "Rent" appealed to them.

Pascal said he has not altered his approach to the show or character, but that doesn't mean his performance has not changed.

"Nothing is consciously different. I am not intentionally doing anything differently, but people tell me my performance has changed," he said. The actor went on to note that he is now married, has children and has much more life experience than he did when he originated the role of Roger.

Most actors learn to tolerate touring, at best. Pascal prefers it to doing a long run at home. "The road is easier for me," he explained. "Out here on the road, I have only one responsibility, the show." The chores and logistics of family life don't intrude.

"Rent" opens Nov. 24 and runs through Nov. 29 at the Marcus Center.

Lombardi on Broadway?

Two years ago, two writers with Wisconsin roots, David Maraniss and Eric Simonson, teamed up to create a new drama about the late Packers legend Vince Lombardi. Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with a Madison background, had authored in 1999 a complex and compelling biography of the coach titled "When Pride Still Mattered."

Simonson, a theater artist and Oscar-winning film director, used it as the source material for his stage play "Lombardi: The Only Thing."

The drama was given its premiere in 2007 by the now defunct Madison Repertory Theatre, and Next Act Theatre mounted a slightly revised version last fall. Now The New York Times and Chicago Tribune report that Simonson, who grew up in rural Waukesha County, is starting over with a new Lombardi play that is tentatively headed for Broadway next fall. The Maraniss book will again provide the source material.

Why not simply transfer the first Lombardi play to Broadway? Simonson is a solid writer whose work is familiar to Milwaukee Rep audiences. However, "Lombardi: The Only Thing" stumbles over a theatrical device -- a hallucination the coach experiences after fainting at Mitchell International Airport -- that is admirably daring but doesn't work.

The playwright will do something seldom attempted in theater, create a second piece about the same subject using the same source.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.