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Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by John R. Leffert
A review by Kate Barry
Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Kate Barry. All rights reserved.
I have a confession to make: I love Rent. I always have and always will. Jonathan Larson’s opus about a group of friends fighting through inner demons, the AIDS epidemic and heartbreak premiered on Broadway in 1996. Since then, there have been a movie adaptation featuring original players, countless tours, and a revival; and now the production rights have been released to the public and it has hit the local theater circuit. Larson based the play’s key issues on what he encountered during his everyday life as a struggling playwright in New York City. Whether it was toying with giving up artistic integrity for the sake of financial gain or falling in love with a high risk of getting tremendously heart broken, the themes addressed in Larson’s work are momentous and emotional. Tonight, I saw a production at CenterStage and I had doubts. Artistic Director John R. Leffert assured me and the rest of his audience that “we’re going to do it and we’re going to do it very well.”
For starters, many elements of this small-scale direct send-up to the Broadway production were pitch-perfect. Jordan Price as Roger was the washed up, aloof, AIDS-inflicted punk rocker. His rendition of “One Song Glory” could rival Adam Pascal’s Original Broadway Cast recording. Price is strong during his emotionally fueled argument with the ever-flirtatious Mimi (Kate E. Reedy) during “Another Day.” Reedy and Price’s vocal chemistry were superb throughout the production in “Light my Candle” and “Without You.” As Maureen, Lauren McCombs was a fun combination of no inhibition and heaps of exhibitionism. She completely owned “Over the Moon.” Brian Bowles plays Mark, the musical’s narrator. As the play centers on Mark’s nearly obsessive filming of a year in the life of his friends, Bowles provides sweetness as he watches his friends suffer with illness and triumph in their victories. Bowles meets his match with his ex-girlfriend’s current lover, Joanne, played with sassy strength by Tymika Prince. In “Tango Maureen,” Bowles’ and Prince’s voices blend as well as their comedic timing. Bowles gained a few extra laughs when he delivered a line about Jewish Community Centers directly to the audience; a smart comedic choice, indeed.
As this is a play which runs on high octane energy, the mechanics of this beast of a show are only as a strong as its weakest parts. This is a rock opera, and Rent incorporates a live band on stage, a concept that has been repeated in other shows like Spring Awakening and American Idiot. Perhaps it was the faulty sound system within the theater itself, which kept cutting in and out at vital moments of the production, or a conscious choice of pulling back on the musicians’ volume to provide clearer quality for the vocals. Regardless, I expected loud rock-and-roll music and received a muted collection of musicians.
As “Today for You” began, and Darius Kenner-Williams appeared in his glorious Santa drag, I couldn’t help but wonder if the music I heard was a recorded track. As this song has major dance club elements, perhaps the pulsating beats and fast rhythm was too advanced for a theater like CenterStage. While on the subject of Kenner-Williams, he had some very big, sparkly shoes to fill. Wilson James Heredia won the Tony for his portrayal as the innocent victim of AIDS. It is a character who keeps the circle of friends together and breathes life into an otherwise dreary play. Kenner-Williams fully grasped on to Angel’s flamboyant elements but lacked chemistry with Tom Collins (played with beautiful vibrato by Alonzo Richmond). Although his leaps and flips were impressive, it could not save “Today for You” from nearly falling flat.
“Take Me or Leave Me” and “What You Own” provided impressive singing for sure but lacked the powerful punch in the gut. Maureen and Joanne are in the midst of yet another fight, and this number lacked the pent-up aggression that such a couple would have. McCombs and Prince are equally talented, but I wanted them to be yelling at each other. That’s the point of belting in this song, after all. “What You Own” is perhaps the most difficult song within the play. Mark is giving up job security for his passion and Roger is gaining the courage to come home and find the woman he loves. It is the turning point of the second act and, in this production, regrettably forgettable.
All is not lost for this production of Rent. This is a play that won many Tony awards and shaped the contemporary world of musical theater. The cast truly shines in the most popular number, “Seasons of Love,” a beautiful choral piece that starts the second act. “La Vie Boheme” is a celebration of rebellion and life as the cast dances and cheers their way to intermission. As I mentioned before, I had my doubts about this production. I had total faith in CenterStage, as I have seen past productions of Cabaret and Evita that were incredibly moving. I knew that the company had talented resources to be taken advantage of; yet I was skeptical. I knew that I did not want to see a complete copy of the Nederlander Theater production. As expected, Mark wears a striped scarf, Mimi wears her shiny pants, and Angel wears her Santa Clause dress. Although it’s important to incorporate such key identifiers within any production, it’s also important to bring your own creativity to the production as well, and I think CenterStage did their best.
July 12-29, 2012
JCC CenterStage
Linker Auditorium
3600 Dutchmans Lane
Louisville, KY 40205