CITY THEATER’S SMASH HIT “RENT” IS UNDAUNTING ARTISTIC SUCCESS

Biddeford City Theater's cast of RENT. Photo credit: AudraHatch.com

Biddeford City Theater’s cast of RENT. Photo credit: AudraHatch.com

July, 2015

To say that Jonathan Larson was a musical theater genius would be an understatement. Steven Sondheim would be proud.

To say that City Theater’s production of RENT is spectacular and compelling would also be an understatement. Larson would be proud.

To conceptually photoshop Puccini’s “La Bohème” from 1930s Left Bank Paris on a band of struggling artists with AIDS in 1990s East Village Manhattan, and create a rock opera—script, music and lyrics—is visionary to say the least.

To take a rock musical like RENT and nail every song and perfectly emulate every Larson nuance of every character with unabashed skill and spirit is one of City Theater’s most amazing and glorious gifts to the community. The other, of course, is a superb creative team led by Artistic Director Linda Sturdivant whose reputation for setting high standards and exceeding expectations is well known.

RENT documents a year in the life—and death—of a group of friends/peers squatting in a loft, all struggling in some way—financially, creatively, artistically, sexually, romantically, emotionally. Many have AIDS and debilitating addictions; all have baggage. It was a good time to be alive, to party with friends (everyone was a friend) to follow one’s dream while binging on rampant sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll and overindulging on unfiltered choices with no consequence in sight. “Forget regret, or life is yours to miss…”

For many, though, it was a horrible struggle filled with pain, loss, denial, death. And Larson has an uncanny way of painting the juxtaposition between life’s highs and lows. The audience has no choice but to experience the intense inner conflicts and outward battles that each of his bohemian family members grapple with. “…No other path, no other way, no day but today.”

Larson’s challenge to audiences is to look back on their own year of emotional milestones and challenges and “measure your life in love.” After all, there are only 525,600 minutes in a year…YOU decide how to spend those moments.

The story focuses on Roger Davis (Joel Crowley), a songwriter-musician who is HIV positive, and his roommate Mark Cohen (James Muller), a brainy video artist who escapes into his work. Their friend Tom Collins (Jason Phillips) arrives for a surprise visit and is mugged before entering, but is tended to by a stranger, a transgender percussionist named Angel Dumont Schunard (Justin Stebbins), and the two fall in love. An exotic dancer and neighbor, Mimi Marquez (Ashley Christy), asks Roger to light her candle and a romance is sparked. Mark’s former girlfriend, Maureen Johnson (Karleena Stoner), is a bisexual performance artist who left Mark for a new lover, Joanne Jefferson (Sarah Thurston). Meanwhile, Benjamin Coffin III (Brian McAloon), former roommate of Roger, Mark, Collins and Maureen, is now their landlord and demanding rent.

A fabulous ensemble portrays a parade of 19 beautiful, colorful and decadent characters that are vital to a narrative that develops…sometimes too fast. If you’re not paying attention you can easily miss some complex details (a note that even Sondheim shared with Larson).

To point out some highlights of this show is akin to winning an Oscar and remembering all the people to thank. To claim that every cast member was flawless in their art is NOT to be taken as some reviewer’s throw-away cliché, but an honest recognition of some formidable and inspiring individuals.

Joel Crowley’s “Roger” is precisely the raw, honest, vulnerable and complicated guy Larson created, complete with amazing vocal strength, control and range. Bravo!

What Justin Stebbins brings to his cross-dressing “Angel” is one of the most emotional and transforming pieces of theater that transcends boundaries and changes hearts. Bravo!

RENT is a non-stop concert/variety show of Larson hits that combine many influences—Sondheim (no surprise), Tim Rice, Galt MacDermot, and an array of generic 80s pop songsters. The music is magnificent, ripe with refreshing lyrics and interesting melodies.

Music Director and pianist Kevin Smith presents a magnificent handful of musicians whose collective output sound like a professional off-Broadway pit, once again proving that Smith is one of the most professional and capable Music Directors in Maine theater.

Larson’s trademark writing style (i.e. rounds of phrases interlaced with other rounds of phrases and integrated rhythms that all come together oftentimes in unison for a big finale) is evident in the show’s chart-topper “Seasons Of Love.” But his interesting treatment of duets is arguably his biggest creative asset: “Another Day” and “Without You” feature astounding vocals by Crowley and Ashley Christy. Bravo!

Totally impressive are the vocal triumphs of Rebecca Rinaldi and Brian McAloon in “Seasons Of Love” (it doesn’t get any better than this). Bravo! And to all who were mesmerizing in both versions of “La Vie Bohème”: BRAVO!

And leave it to Larson to create a crazy performance art piece called “Over The Moon.” But leave it to an amazingly talented Karleena Stoner to turn that piece into an unbelievable mind-boggling show-stopper. This superb singer and actress walked away with the bakery. Bravo!

RENT brings out the harsh realities of living a life with AIDS and the fear of losing one’s dignity. Larson’s depiction of his Life Support characters (and the powerful “Another Day”) was inspired by the real life meetings of the support group Friends In Deed which Larson attended. The names of those who are part of the Life Support meeting in the show carry the same names of Larson’s friends who died of AIDS.

RENT is an extension of Larson’s autobiographical musical tick…tick…Boom! which City Theater presented earlier this season. To know RENT is to know Larson, and the community is indebted to City Theater for bringing both of Larson’s creations to glorious life.

RENT is Larson’s divinely appointed legacy, as he would never enjoy the fruits of his labor. Tragically, in January, 1996, only hours before its off-Broadway opening, Larson collapsed in his apartment and died from an aortic aneurysm. Injustice? Mercy? Judgment?…Ironically, all themes the playwright espoused in his prophetic work—that in a matter of hours would change the face of American musical theater.

RENT runs until August 2 at City Theater, 205 Main St., Biddeford. Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. Tickets are $20. Call 282-0849 or visit http://www.citytheater.org.

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–Louis Philippe

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2 Responses to “CITY THEATER’S SMASH HIT “RENT” IS UNDAUNTING ARTISTIC SUCCESS”

  1. Florence Says:

    The author of “City Theater’s Smash Hit Rent is Undaunting Success” has failed to notice that the show also contains a lighting, set, sound, costume, and property design. In addition to those designs that were not mentioned, the set was also painted by an extremely talented scenic artist. The positive review is fabulous, but it would be even more appropirate and appreciated if it were a complete review of the show as a whole instead of just focusing solely on such a small part of the piece (the actors and music.) Also, the part of this review that tells the plot is completely unnecessary. The plot of the show is exactly the same in every single production of Rent ever done. The point of the review is to tell people about this specific production not to give accolades to the actors and directors and to ignore the rest of the production.

    • Thank you, Florence. I can’t say I disagree with any of your review of my review. When a show such as City Theater’s RENT is THIS stupendous, it becomes a challenge to point out all the good elements of the production, especially with a word limit. I am so happy that someone with creative awareness added such an important addendum to my review. Again, thank you.

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