Struggle may never look as sexy as Maria Isa and Harley Wood make it out to be in "Rent." The two heartthrobs from the Twin Cities music scene are starring in crackerjack producer Andrew Rasmussen's locally originated production of Jonathan Larson's bohemian rhapsody. The production, which opens Wednesday at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis, has a talented cast that also includes "American Idol" finalist Paris Bennett and her belting mom, Jamecia Bennett. This "Rent" uses all 6,000 square feet of the Lab, which has been done up to resemble the rough urban environment where Isa's Mimi and Wood's Roger try to hold onto love and music in a difficult, tragedy-prone world.
The Minneapolis production will test the acting skills of both Wood and Isa, both of whom are better known for their own music careers than for inhabiting prescripted musical characters.
"I know people will be curious to see if we can do it, and I encourage them to come find out," said Isa, a hot name in the local hip-hop, reggaeton and spoken-word scenes, with two acclaimed albums under her belt.
In interviews last week during rehearsal breaks, the actors said that they relish the challenge of tackling their "Rent" roles: Wood plays an HIV-positive songwriter and Isa is an HIV-positive exotic dancer. Together, they ponder love, art and mortality in the East Village.
"This [show] is so much about our times and our lives," said Isa. "These are not characters in a show -- they are the people we know, people who have touched us, inspired us."
The biographies of Wood, 26, and Isa, 22, suffused with struggle and occasional tragedy, are as compelling as those of their characters. The only child of a teenage single mother who had him at 15, Wood's early life was one of instability and witnessed abuse. His mother, who would later find fulfillment as a truck driver who transports honeybee hives across the country, moved often. Wood had to learn to adapt to new people and situations.
"In the abusive situations that my mom found herself in, I had to grow up fast," he said. Wood said that he knew that he would become a performer at around age "5 or 6," when his "mom and her boyfriend would take me out somewhere and I would get change, go to a jukebox and start dancing," he recalled. "People would throw money at me. And that moment sticks in my mind because it helped me know the power I had to make people feel something good, to create joy for them. That is my gift."
When Wood was 15, he rebelled against his mother's frequent, but necessary, moves. He decided to stay put at Centennial High School in Circle Pines. "I was in a school that I loved with a wonderful theater director and music director," he said. "I did not want to give it up."
The only problem about his decision is that he did not have a place to live. Wood slept in friends' cars. "During the time when I was homeless, I really began to understand me, and what I needed to do in this life," he said.
Today, Wood memorializes his experience with tattoos. "Sometimes I wake up and go, 'Oh, where did that come from?'" he said with a smile. Some are sayings ("What we resist, persists" and "Sinners have souls, too," the latter from "The Color Purple"). Others, like the tat of his first stuffed animal, Woofy, remind him of his journey. "Woofy is for the innocence I didn't have," he said.
He mixes that search for innocence and the hard edges of his experience in his delivery as lead singer of the Minneapolis rock band Far From Falling and, he hopes, in his portrayal of Roger in "Rent."
"Living in the streets at 15, I could've been an alcoholic, addict or dead," he said. "But I found music and it saved my life."
Isa grew up in a St. Paul Puerto Rican family with a deep love of the arts. Her mother and aunt founded El Arco Iris Center for the Arts in St. Paul in 1992 with a writ to preserve Afro-Caribbean and Latino cultures. Isa's paternal grandmother, Aminta Ortiz-Perez, sang tango, boleros and plena in Puerto Rico, where her grandfather, Felix Jesus Perez, was also a trumpet player and singer. Her aunt, Mila Llauger, was a Chicago-based jazz-singer who toured with Tony Bennett.
Isa's family would serve as one of the unofficial welcoming houses for Latin artists and performers visiting the Twin Cities. "When people like Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri came here, we might go backstage to meet them or they would come to our house after their shows," she remembered. "That kind of experience imprints on you."
Isa has been performing publicly since age 7, when she and some family members were backstage at a concert at Northrop Auditorium. Suddenly, she recalled, La India, the star of the show, called her out onstage. "I didn't really know what was happening," she said. "Next thing you know I was out there carrying on and all these people were making a fuss in the audience."
In fact, the stage became such a draw for her that it would pull her away from other things. She dropped out of Columbia College in Chicago after a year to go on a tour in 2005. It was the launch of her professional music career.
If Isa has known the mesmerizing thrill of the bright lights, she has also known loss. A young cousin succumbed to HIV, the same virus her character carries.
"I know our show is going to be the bomb because I'm doing this for her," she said. "You know, when this show first came out, people were afraid to talk about AIDS and HIV. They still are. But we have to talk."
Both Isa and Wood said that they may team up with each other and other cast members after the run of the Minneapolis show.
"Within theater, you become a family," said Isa. "I'm excited to see what evolves from this. 'Rent' is not going to stop here."