Monday, March 10, 2014

RENT • New Line Theatre

New Line continues its 23rd season with Jonathan Larson's hugely popular, Pulitzer Prize, Tony-Award winning "Rent." Largely based on Henri Murger's collected stories, Scenes de la Vie de Bohème, that also gave life to the opera, La Bohème, "Rent" switches the location from Paris to New York City, examining the lives of "those on the margin" -- a group of young bohemians living in Manhattan's Alphabet City. Death, drug addiction, being broke and HIV-positive status are pervasive throughout, but "Rent" doesn't wallow in its own sorrow. Instead, this collective coming-of-age rock opera revels in joyous rebellion, with a score full of varied styles, strong melodies and rich harmonies.

I was admittedly one of those folks who didn't get all the hype around Rent after I saw it for the first time several years ago. Well, now I get it. The characters this time around, though dealing with major issues that would be tough for anyone, have an affable quality that was lacking the last time I saw it. Could it be because seeing a show like this in New Line's intimate space makes the theatre experience not just something you see, but something you feel? Yes. But it's also New Line's artistic director, Scott Miller's knack for gaining a deep understanding of whatever he puts his hands on, and translating that to his cast, who in turn translate that to us, reaching out to the audience, in this case literally, with invigorating connection. WAY better than the touring production. There. I said it.

Jeremy Hyatt (Mark), Marshall Jennings (Collins),
and Evan Fornachon (Roger).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
It's the late 80's on Christmas Eve, and the opening scene introduces us to Mark (Jeremy Hyatt), an aspiring filmmaker, and Roger (Evan Fornachon), a musician. They're roommates in an abandoned building in the East Village and Mark is embarking on a new documentary. Through Mark's film camera, we learn about their community of friends.

The sizable cast is uniformly excellent, and not only do they bring real vocal power to the ensemble numbers, including "Rent", "Another Day", and of course, "Seasons of Love", they capably fill in for various roles, whether it's Robert Lee Davis III playing a persistent squeegieman, or Wendy Greenwood as the pushy Alexi Darling who tries to recruit Mark for a job at a tabloid news show. In addition to the familiar New Liners we're used to seeing, including Zachary Allen Farmer, Ryan Foizey and Marcy Wiegert, who all contribute wonderfully to the ensemble, there are several new faces.

Anna Skidis (Mimi).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Hyatt and Fornachon serve as the anchors of this group, and while Hyatt portrays Mark, the incredibly likable loner, with "everyday American kid" enthusiasm and sincerity, Fornachon lends his sturdy, raw vocals to a bereft Roger, still grieving the loss of his girlfriend to suicide. He's hesitant about starting a new relationship with Mimi, an exotic dancer and drug addict, vibrantly portrayed by Anna Skidis. Skidis is often seen playing the goofball sidekick, and it was refreshing to see her in a role like this that shows off her unbridled range, and as usual, she excels. Her duet with Roger, "Light My Candle", is touching and sweetly funny, she kills "Out Tonight", and if you get a seat on the aisle, you might be lucky enough to get a lap dance. Just sayin'.

Mark's ex-girlfriend Maureen (Sarah Porter), a performance artist, has just dumped him for Joanne (Cody LaShea), a lawyer. Porter threatens to steal the show with her performance piece, "Over the Moon" along with her hilariously deadpan backup singers, Wiegert and Greenwood. LaShea's got a great presence onstage as Joanne and a strong voice, and her duet with Mark, "Tango: Maureen", was one of many highlights.

Luke Steingruby (Angel).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Marshall Jennings is impressive as Collins, a gay college professor who gets mugged on his way up to Mark and Roger's apartment. Immediate sparks fly when he meets Angel, a cross-dressing street musician who comes to his rescue, in a beautifully honest portrayal by Luke Steingruby. Jennings's smooth, deep vocals are well matched with Steingruby (who makes a gorgeous woman, by the way) in their duet, "I'll Cover You". Shawn Bowers turns in a solid performance as Benny, a former roommate of Roger and Mark's who marries into money and decides to buy the building to erect a cyber studio and evict the homeless from the lot next door. Over the course of the show, one year passes as this disarming group of friends connect, detach, and connect again, working their way through their challenges and losses.

Rob Lippert's scenic design features a round elevated platform center stage with graffiti-laden metal surroundings (thanks to artists William Wade, Kathleen Dwyer, Mitchell Matthews and Justin Foizey) and an upper level platform that evokes the East Village, and provides a good playing space for the cast. Lippert also lights the set to great effect, including a nifty little trash can fire that Mark and Roger set to keep warm. Sarah Porter and Marcy Wiegert's costume design is spot on for the number of characters, and Kerrie Mondy's sound design complements the overall vibe of the show. Last, but not least, under the reliable direction of Justin Smolik, the New Line Band pulls their weight -- nicely balanced with the ensemble, full, and tight as hell. 

Sarah Porter (Maureen).
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Miller and assistant director, Mike Dowdy, have hit a home run, so basically, you need to just go see it. And quickly, because it's selling like crazy. It's up until the 23rd. I mentioned that they made me a believer, right? Get a ticket. Now!


Music/book/lyrics by Jonathan Larson  
Directed by Scott Miller
Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
through March 23 | tickets: $10 - $15
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm

Jeremy Hyatt (Mark), Evan Fornachon (Roger), Anna Skidis (Mimi), Luke Steingruby (Angel), Marshall Jennings (Collins), Sarah Porter (Maureen), Cody LaShea (Joanne), Shawn Bowers (Benny), Kevin Corpuz, Robert Lee Davis III, Zachary Allen Farmer, Ryan Foizey, Wendy Greenwood, Melissa Harris, Nellie Mitchell, and Marcy Wiegert.

Jeremy Hyatt (Mark) and the cast of "RENT."
Photo credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg
Assistant director, Mike Dowdy; scenic and lighting design by Rob Lippert; costume design by Sarah Porter and Marcy Wiegert; sound design by Kerrie Mondy; "Tango: Maureen: choreographer, Robin Michelle Berger; props by Alison Helmer; stage manager, Gabe Taylor.

The New Line Band:
Piano/conductor, Justin Smolik; lead guitar, D. Mike Bauer; bass, Vince Clark; rhythm guitar, Aaron Doerr; percussion, Clancy Newell.

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