Saturday, February 19, 2011


RENT compels at Baldwin Wallace

Baldwin Wallace College is doing an American first. For the very first time in history, RENT and LA BOHEME are being performed in repertory.

RENT is Jonathan Larson's rock musical which is broadly based on Puccini's LA BOHÈME, but, is not a translation of that epic opera. It is a reimagining, a view of Larson's 1996 today. It puts the spotlight on the physical and psychological temperature of New York at that time.

The title was chosen because Larson was looking at how, from his viewpoint, traditional society was thwarting the hopes and dreams of the MTV generation. He chose the term rent, because it means tearing apart.

RENT takes place in New York's Lower East Side, before gentrification, when the old buildings and warehouses were home to the bohemian and drug worlds.

The story covers about a year in the life of roommates Mark and Roger, who live in a condemned building, and their friends. Roger, is HIV positive and is numb to life, trying to write a song which has only one musical line that he keeps repeating over and over on his electric guitar. Mark is trying to capture life on film, but may, in fact be using his camera as a tool to steal himself away from life itself. They are intertwined with an exotic dancer/drug addict, a cross dresser, an hiv+ philosophy professor, an ex-friend who has married for money, and Mark's ex-girlfriend and her lover. Together the group deals with love, loss, AIDS, and everyday existence.

The musical is somewhat autobiographical. Larson, who lived in the Big Apple for many years as a starving artist, sacrificed a life of stability for his art, and shared many of the same living conditions, hopes and fears as his characters.

The dynamic score includes the illuminating Light My Candle, the plaintive I Should Tell You and the stirring Seasons of Love.

Much like the storyline, the musical's very existence was met with problems. On January 25, 1996, the morning after the show's final dress rehearsal, coincidentally 100 years to the day of the debut of Puccini's opera, Larson died from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. The first preview was canceled and instead, friends and family gathered at the theater where the actors performed a sing-through in Larson's memory. He never knew that the show would be a smash hit and go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

The BW production, with a few minor issues, is outstanding. I've seen the show on and off Broadway, and in several other venues and this version holds up well against the others. The staging by Victoria Bussert and choreography by Gregory Daniel are exciting and exacting.

The show is being done with two casts. I saw the “Mark” cast, so all my comments will center on those actors. Seeing the “Roger” cast might garner a different viewpoint.

Jon White is outstanding as Roger. He has an excellent voice, moves well, and developed a real and textured characterization. Chris McCarrell is spot on as Mark. He has just the right balance between geek and heartfelt persona. Kyra Kennedy as Joanne, the girlfriend of Mark's ex, has an excellent voice and develops a nice lesbo vibe. Andrea Leach is a total hoot as Maureen. Her performance piece, Over the Moon, was a show-stopper. Jason Samuel, as professor Tom Collins, left no eye unfilled with tears with his segment of the eulogy, Goodbye Love.

On the other hand, Jillian Kates Bumpas did not ignite the role of Mimi. She had upper range singing issues and failed to develop the sensuality of the role. Fortunately, her duet, Without You, sung with Jon White, left a positive impression. Antwaun Holley seemed uncomfortable playing the cross-dressing Angel. Since so much of the second act centers on the character, Holley's lack of dynamic warmth somewhat chilled the effect of his death on the story development. But, as someone near me said, “S/he sure does look good!”

The chorus was outstanding. Not only did they sing well, but they were in character throughout and created meaningful stage pictures. Highlight supporting vocals were performed by Jessica Waddle and Adrianna Cleveland in Seasons of Love.

Jeff Herrmann's scenic and light designs, Charlotte Yetman's costumes and DJ Jankura's sound designs all added to the production.

My grandson, Alex Berko, a gifted musician, who I often bring along to give a teenagers' view of a show and comment on the melodic aspects, was ecstatic, giving the show a near perfect score. He thought the leads' voices, with one exception, were excellent. He liked the staging, thought the choral work was outstanding, though he noted that there were a few instances when the band was out of sync with the singers, especially in Seasons of Love. He commented, and grandpa agreed, that the music, under the direction of Ryan Fielding Garrett, was well played, but, at times drowned out the words to songs making it difficult to understand the words.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: BW's RENT is a production well-worth seeing. It will probably be more appreciated by young adult audiences rather than the senior set, but everyone should be impressed by the talent of the students and the quality of the staging.