Posts Tagged ‘rent’

Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Lili-Anne Brown
Choreographed by Breon Arzell
The Muny
August 5, 2023

Lincoln Clauss (Center) and Cast of Rent
The Muny

If someone had told me 15 years ago that I would eventually be seeing Rent at the Muny, I’m not sure if I would have believed them. But now, it’s here, and it’s great.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning show that took Broadway by storm in the 1990’s is now onstage in Forest Park, in a vibrant, terrifically cast production that serves as a good introduction to the show for those who haven’t seen it before, as well as highlighting the strengths of the story for those who already know and love it. 

This Rent may not please some die-hard purists, considering it doesn’t have the classic look of the Broadway show, and some of the grittier elements have been toned down a bit for the Muny stage. Still, this production was obviously made by people who love this show, and it is the relationships and the emotion that shine through in this new production that brings an immediacy and energy to the story that, even with its mid-90’s setting, feels fresh and vibrant for today’s audiences. The story, with its inspiration from Puccini’s opera La Bohème and focus on struggling artists and others in New York City’s East Village, is very much of its time, but it doesn’t seem as dated as I had been expecting. This version has also been scaled to fit the Muny’s huge stage, with an excellent multilevel set by Arnel Sanciano that represents the neighborhood with vivid detail. There’s also fantastic use of video design by Paul Deziel, featuring images from the era as well as the films recorded by one of the leading characters, aspiring filmmaker Mark (Lincoln Clauss). The costumes by Raquel Adorno are appropriately of the era, and suit the characters well. There’s also memorable lighting by Heather Gilbert, and an excellent Muny Orchestra led by music director Jermaine Hill. 

The story and characters are familiar if you know the show, and if you don’t, this serves as a good introduction. There’s filmmaker Mark,  along with his wannabe rock-star roommate Roger (Vincent Kempski); and the troubled and ailing dancer Mimi (Ashley De La Rosa), who shares a strong attraction with Roger, but he is afraid to commit for various reasons.  The rest of the characters are mostly part of the same group of friends, former friends, lovers and former lovers who deal with various struggles, mostly due to high housing prices, greed, drug addiction, and the AIDS epidemic. Performance artist Maureen (Lindsay Heather Pearce), used to date Mark but is now in a volatile relationship with lawyer Joanne (Anastacia McCleskey); out-of-work professor Collins (Terrance Johnson, standby for Evan Tyrone Martin) becomes involved with the charismatic drag queen and street performer Angel (Adrian Villegas); and Benny (Tré Frazier), who used to be Roger and Mark’s roommate but now owns their building after marrying into wealth, deals with the pressures he’s getting as a result of his new social position as well as his own former involvement with Mimi. The hopes, fears, struggles, loves, and losses of this group over the course of a year form the basis the plot, featuring a series of memorable songs and leading up to an emotionally charged conclusion.

What I think works especially well in this production is the development of the various relationships, and the overall sense of connection among the group of friends, even despite their conflicts. The cast is uniformly strong, with notable standouts being Kempski and De La Rosa, who show palpable chemistry as Roger and Mimi; as well as Pearce as the fiercely determined Maureen, McCleskey as the equally determined but frequently exasperated Joanne, and Villegas as the memorable Angel, who has great moments with Johnson’s also excellent Collins. The voices are strong across the board, as well as strong ensemble energy from an enthusiastic supporting cast including the Muny Teen Ensemble. 

Rent is an almost 30-year-old show that’s making its Muny debut with style, energy, and most of all heart. I’m glad to see it in such a big, well-produced version with such a strong cast. It’s another strong entry in the Muny’s stellar 2023 season. 

Cast of Rent
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Muny

The Muny is presenting Rent in Forest Park until August 10, 2023

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Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson

Original Story Concept/Additional Lyrics by Billy Aronson

Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy

New Line Theatre

March 8, 2014

Jeremy Hyatt (center) and the cast of RENT Photo by Jill Ritter Lindbergh New Line Theatre

Jeremy Hyatt (center) and the cast of Rent
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindbergh
New Line Theatre

I was somewhat surprised when I read that New Line was going to be staging a production of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent.  The surprise was not that New Line was doing the show.  It was that they had never done it before. Known for their offbeat and edgier productions of musicals, New Line seems like just the right venue for this show, even though it’s taken all these years for them to produce it.  Good things happen in their proper time, I guess, and it seems like that time is now, as New Line has proven with the visually striking and emotionally gripping version that is currently being presented on their stage.

Rent is the enormously popular and critically acclaimed examination of life in New York City’s Lower East Side in the early 1990’s, inspired by Puccini’s classic opera La Boheme and its source material, the novel Scenes de La Vie de Boheme by Henri Murger. Like the earlier works, this show revolves around the lives of struggling young artists, updated to reflect the times and issues of early 90s New York, including class struggles and the AIDS epidemic. The story centers on aspiring filmmaker Mark (Jeremy Hyatt) and his roommate, the melancholy, HIV-afflicted ex-junkie rock musician Roger (Evan Fornachon), and their diverse group of young Bohemian friends.  There’s Mark’s ex-girlfriend, performance artist Maureen (Sarah Porter) and her current girlfriend, Ivy-league educated lawyer Joanne (Cody LaShea), who experience a somewhat volatile relationship.  There’s also Mimi (Anna Skidis), a young dancer who struggles with drug addiction and HIV, and who is drawn to Roger, as well as sometime college professor Collins (Marshall Jennings), who develops a romance with the charismatic drag queen street performer Angel (Luke Steingruby).  In contrast to the young Bohemians is the newly wealthy Benny (Shawn Bowers), Mark and Roger’s former roommate who married a millionaire’s daughter and is now their landlord.  Throughout the story, the various romantic entanglements are woven throughout the story that also focuses on issues of artistic expression, integrity vs. commercialism, and the struggle against economic and social injustice in the city.

This is an intense show, with moments of sadness and angst, as well as moments of love, joy and hope, and that full range of emotion is well-represented in this vibrant production. I did notice in the performance I saw that it took a little bit of time for the show to really get moving, but once it did (with Hyatt and LaShea’s highly charged performance of “Tango; Maureen” ), it kept getting better and better. The show’s better-known songs like the raucous “La Vie Boheme” and the poignant “Seasons of Love” are well represented here along with the rest of the memorable score, sung by the glorious voices of New Line’s impeccable ensemble.

The leading cast is superb as well, especially Hyatt as a particularly energetic and sympathetic Mark, as well as Skidis’s vulnerable Mimi and Porter’s fiery and confrontational Maureen, bringing laughs and attitude to “Over the Moon”, and sharing the spotlight with the equally strong LaShea in their memorable duet “Take Me Or Leave Me”.  Steingruby brings a lot of charm and sweetness to Angel, particularly in his scenes with Jennings.  Fornachon, as the moody Roger, has a great rock singing voice and looks the part, working well in his scenes with Skidis and Hyatt, but I also find myself wishing he would hold his head up more and wouldn’t sing to the floor as much. Bowers is also convincing as the increasingly conflicted Benny.  I was particularly struck by the excellent voices of the entire company, but this shouldn’t have surprised me since the singing at New Line is always top-notch.

I loved all the attention to detail in this visually stunning production. Set and lighting designer Rob Lippert, costume designers Porter and Marcy Wiegert, props master Alsion Helmer and the entire design team have created a look that is unique to this production and that brings the audience into the world of this Bohemian New York neighborhood in the 1990’s, with characteristic elements such as a vintage pay phone, clunky cell phones, and Mark’s handheld movie camera, and painted with authentic-looking graffiti.  It’s a multilevel set with all the performance areas put to full use, including the perimeter areas and the audience.  The centerpiece is a giant round table/platform that is painted to resemble the moon, which makes it an ideal stage for Maureen’s “Over The Moon” performance, as well as serving as a large cafe table for “La Vie Boheme” and as a way to set off the ensemble in the “Life Support” group scene.  It’s a bold setting for a bold production, and it leaves a lasting impression.

Shockingly enough considering how popular and acclaimed this show is,  I had never seen it live before.  I had only previously watched the filmed version of the Broadway production that was released in 2009, in addition to having heard many of the songs on various occasions.  I enjoyed that DVD, but I’m also glad directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy have chosen to follow their own vision for the show. New Line’s version is full of youth and energy.  It’s also staged with a sense of immediacy that brings a lot of life to the show. Although the passage of time has turned Rent into something of a period piece, New Line doesn’t treat it that way, and that’s as it should be.  It’s an iconic show made achingly real, with all the truth and energy brought along with its humanity.  It may have taken New Line many years to finally do this show, but this production is well worth that wait.

Anna Skidis, Evan Fornachon Photo by Jill Ritter Lindbergh New Line Theatre

Anna Skidis, Evan Fornachon
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindbergh
New Line Theatre

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