BWW Review: RENT: SCHOOL EDITION at DreamWrights Center For Community Arts
Jonathan Larson's musical Rent premiered at New York Theatre Workshop in 1993 and opened at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway in 1996. Rent ran on-Broadway for 12 years and was adapted for the screen in 2005. Rent: School Edition was made widely available for use by schools and amateur theatres in 2008. Rent: School Edition can be found on stage at DreamWrights Center for Community Arts through June 23rd.
Opening night had some hiccups. Nerves were quite evident in the opening scenes, but for a cast of young actors (most of whom were under eighteen) tackling a show with such difficult music and themes, this is understandable. Once they hit their stride the issues that the nerves caused largely disappeared. The most unfortunate issue was with their sound-volumes were inconsistent and some of the microphones failed. I have no doubt those issues were opening night issues and have been rectified for the next performance. The most impressive thing for me was that the actors did not let the sound issues pull their focus. They kept going and overcame the technical issues with the strength of their passion and talent.
The set is wonderful and lends great dimension to the blocking and choreography. This is particularly evident in "Rent" and "Out Tonight". The choreography by Priscilla Jarrell is imaginative and makes great use of the space, especially in "Tango Maureen", "La Vie Boheme", and "Take Me or Leave Me". And the staging for songs like "Will I" and "Without You" adds to the already emotional elements of those performances.
Madelyn Rader, Rhia Brown, Zach Kessler, Olivia Pituch, Keara Szczepanski, Mykaela Hamm, Trinity Jackson, Emma Hilty, Kirsten Taylor, and Alan Kulp make up the ensemble, and each take on one or more character roles throughout the show. Alan Kulp's performance as the squeegee man is hilarious and really makes the audience think about the times when they've seen folks cleaning windows at red lights in New York or other cities. Rhia Brown's Christmas Bells solos scattered throughout the show are executed with the perfect sense of borderline hopelessness and resignation. Keara Szczepanski unfortunately had a non-functioning mic during her scene as the waitress at the café, but even though we couldn't hear her, her acting, including facial expressions and gestures, was good enough to give the audience an idea of what was going on.
Kirsten Taylor, Emma Hilty, and Mykaela Hamm really shine as Maureen's backup group in "Over the Moon". For such a crazy song, it's one of the most difficult, switching from acapella singing to speaking to singing with music, and they all stayed on pitch and kept the timing well. Trinity Jackson is wonderful to watch on stage. During the group numbers my eyes were often drawn to her because of her stage presence and the way her emotions show in her facial expressions. Madelyn Rader, Zach Kessler, Evelyn Smith, Olivia Rengen, and Trinity Jackson get a huge round of applause for me on their singing in the roles of the parents of the other characters. I have actually never seen a performance of Rent in which I understood the word the parents were singing until now. Olivia Pituch's solo performance in "Seasons of Love" is, in a word, incredible-clear, precise, on-pitch, and delivered with great emotion.
The most electric parts of the show are the scenes in which the whole cast is on stage. The intensity, joy, and passion the actors feel for the show and for performing is evident and permeates the entire theatre.
Logan Smith portrays Benny, Collins, Mark, and Roger's former roommate who has turned his back on his friends. Smith plays the part with just the right amount of swagger and sleaze. He has a smooth, full voice that is lovely for "You'll See". Jonah Unger and Jackob McLain take the stage as Tom Collins and Angel. Unger has perfected the laid-back attitude of Collins, and while his range is lacking on some of the songs, "Santa Fe" is a wonderful performance that gives the audience great insight into the character. McLain is adorable as Angel-sassy and fun. Even though there were times when we couldn't hear McLain as well, his performances in "Today for You" and "La Vie Boheme" are appropriately enthusiastic and energize the scenes.
Drew Dillon, Joseph Fagan, Kendall O'Keefe, Alexa Niles, and Reagan Starrett take on the lead roles of Mark, Roger, Mimi, Joanne, and Maureen. These young actors do not shy away from these demanding roles.
Dillon and Fagan click well as starving artist roommates. Once they shook off their nerves, they managed the difficult music well and gave heartfelt performances. One of their best scenes together is their argument scene in the second act.
Kendall O'Keefe's Mimi is a great match for Fagan's Roger. Their voices harmonize wonderfully together, and they have great chemistry on stage. While O'Keefe's performance is fantastic throughout, the emotional range she displays in the second act is astonishing. "Without You" and "Goodbye Love" showcase her terrific voice perfectly and are gorgeous and heart-rending.
Alexa Niles and Reagan Starrett portray Joanne and Maureen with great authenticity. "Take Me or Leave Me" is one of the best songs in the show vocally-both women have strong, clear, beautiful voices well-suited to their roles. Even when Starrett's microphone was not working, we could hear her and understand her, and she never allowed it to interfere with her performance. There are too many great moments between these two actors to recount them all, so you'll just have to come see the show!
Rent is a difficult show, both musically and thematically. I was struck at times by the fact that most of the actors on stage were not even alive at the end of the millennium and would have no frame of reference for some of the themes that are so prevalent in the show. However, the themes of friendship, love, heartbreak, and loss are universal experiences that this young cast was able to bring to the stage in a genuine way.
For a fresh experience of a musical that really took the theatre world by storm in the early 2000s, definitely take the time to see Rent: School Edition at DreamWrights. I have no doubt you will be impressed by the fearlessness, passion, and talent in this group of young performers. Visit www.dreamwrights.org for your tickets!