Tyler Tate in Rent. Photo: RPA
Book, music, & lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Alonzo Ramont
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
For a primer on why Jonathan Larson’s Rent so quickly became a classic, check out Lin Manuel-Miranda’s excellent film adaptation of Larson’s autobiographical tick…tick…BOOM! on Netflix.
Rent attains that status in part by being THE only major work created by an artist who died far too young. Inspired by Puccini’s La Boheme, the story is barely there, a series of interrelated incidents wrapped around two love stories, and the characters are poverty-stricken artists, drug addicts, drag queens, and a range of the homeless struggling in the middle of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. In his program noted and curtain speech, director Alonzo Ramont recognizes the relevance of these issues in today’s USA. In point of fact, the look and feel of this production is as much 2021 as it is 1989, and Rent doesn’t feel dated.
I must confess that I am not as enamored of this show as are so many people; it is an unwieldy narrative that is rife with cliches, but it does have a rich, innovative score of some complexity. I suppose new generations embrace cliches when they are given a fresh spin, and younger audiences took Rent to heart. The mix of underdog survivor’s tale and life-changing tragedy is perhaps irresistible and if the broad degree of identification across social, economic, and racial categories still seems curious, well, that is what theatre is supposed to do.
Not surprisingly, Ramont’s knack for casting and ability to draw an ensemble of range and diversity of experience mostly serves him very well. I know Tyler Tate from August Wilson and William Shakespeare, so his easily engaging turn as Mark Cohen is a stark contrast, a fluid and charismatic turn that welcomes us warmly into the hardscrabble life he leads. And Tate also can sing. Adam Byrd as his friend and roommate, Roger Davis, is a solid, brooding counterpoint to Tate’s lighter touch, and the two complement each other in fine style.
Philip Clemons has a magnificent voice, and he also proves a fine actor in his characterization of Tom Collins and the tenderness and devotion he shows Angel, the larger-than-life drag queen played with sweet abandon by Kavin Moore. Theirs is the most impactful of the love stories because of the playing and also because in the 2nd act reprise of “I’ll Cover You” Clemons is given the chance to show the depth and range of his voice.
Ashley Anderson is fine if not as fully formed as Mimi Marquez, the addict who works to draw Roger to her. Anderson found the look and movement of the character but seemed to struggle with staying on pitch in her singing for most of the show. She fared better in her later numbers, particularly in her duets with Byrd. Shane Dickerson-Green was a solid presence and good singer as Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III, although the character feels underwritten compared to the others.
Tymika Prince is a veteran of the local musical theatre scene and is always a pro. Her performance as Joanne Jefferson was a case study in conveying character through voice and movement in an understated manner that supports the overall production. Her delightful duet with Tate on “Tango: Maureen” was a highlight, a near-perfect rendition of that tight number. As Joanne’s partner, Maureen herself, Ann Morgan Tyler Heath’s work is bold and her bravura turn with Maureen’s performance art in “Over the Moon” was a hilarious satire even if it also felt like an unnatural shift in tone from the overall show.
The rest of the ensemble provided good support and several moments to shine as individuals, and they were dressed in a rococo mix of NYC style and poverty row rags. The set design by Patrick Jump felt overly busy to me. The scaffolding provided the right depth and levels for the fluid action but the overabundance of texture and color was a confusing background that sometimes made it difficult to follow the action and find who was singing. It was a problem exacerbated by glitchy microphones that muddied some of the vocals. Following the story in this kind of operetta, the format is not easy when you can’t hear the lyrics.
The production does boast a live 5-piece band that sounded sharp and featured nice, subtle work from guitarist Doug Payne on some crucial signature work that is highlighted in several scenes.
Rent’s staying power might hinge on “Seasons of Love”, an ensemble number that quickly became iconic, and it works beautifully here. It exemplifies the hope and profound sense of community that is necessary to survive the worst of times. Despite the despair and tragedy, Jonathan Larson’s story is filled with love and the joy that is found even through heartbreak and loss. This message is a worthy one at any time, but Ramont and his company are fully cognizant of the added layers of meaning coming now, late in a pandemic that follows a time of great division in our society, and as the year-end holidays surround us, making Rent a gift for us all.
Featuring Ashley Anderson, August Anderson, Adam Byrd, Philip Clemons, Shane Dickerson-Green, Erica Yoletta Goodman, Derek Guy, KJ Fischback, Kavin Moore, Ann Morgan Tyler Heath, Louise Hopsen, Amber Hurst, Rachel Molly, William Nickles, Colleen Priddy, Tymika Prince, Bryson Sands, Tyler Tate, Josh Tierney, Shauntrice Wilson
Live band: Cam Gooden, Julie McKay, Doug Payne, Benji Simmons, John Spencer
December 10, 11, & 12, 2021
Redline Performing Arts
Highland Community Center
East Breckinridge Street
Louisville, KY 40206
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.