BWW Review: Stunning Caleb Quezon and Tallulah Nouss Lead an Outstanding Young Cast in Corbett Preparatory School's Production of Jonathan Larson's RENT
Just because a work may be dated doesn't make it lose any of its power. This is particularly true of RENT, Jonathan Larson's musical ode to the modern-day bohemians of Alphabet City in the East Village and his clever, sometimes forced updating of Puccini's La Boheme. When it debuted on Broadway in 1996, after Larson's untimely death, its music pulsated, a beacon of sorts for a new generation, with a new musical theatre sound that included moments of grunge and techno. Not since Hair in the Sixties did a musical mirror the zeitgeist so accurately. Too bad RENT, like Hair, already seemed on the verge of being dated even during its initial Broadway run. (That's why the awful RENT movie had to be set in 1989, which caused its own problems, including an anachronistic Thelma and Louise reference that didn't make sense with the year change, unless Angel happened to be Nostradamus.)
Over the years RENT has mesmerized musical theatre aficionados, some of whom were not even born when it premiered; many of my current middle school theatre students can sing the lyrics to "La Vie Boheme" or "Seasons of Love." The show has planted its grunge flag across the pop culture landscape, and you will be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't know anything about it. Some of its songs are probably being performed at some Applebee's open mic night as I write this; is there a better duet to tackle in Karaoke Land than "Take Me or Leave Me"?
I see RENT as a period piece, and it works best that way. Many of its issues--drug addiction, AIDS, homelessness--are sadly still around but are no longer the top headline of the news anymore.
The School edition of RENT is, in some ways, an improvement on Larsen's original full-length version. The cuts aren't so severe, and its worst song, the misguided "Contact," has been relegated to the dung heap, which makes a huge improvement on the show. In my eyes, "Contact" is tied with "Tick Tock" from Company as the most dated, annoying song in musical theatre history. It's a gift from the theatre gods that it has been excised here.
Twenty-one teenagers at the Corbett Preparatory School IDS performed the school edition of RENT on June 27th, 28th and 29th after an intensive two weeks rehearsal period, and you would think they were on tour with it for months after watching it. The show's vibrancy, its verve and power, work best when performed by a young cast. Compare it to the movie version, where the cast, mostly from the original Broadway team ten years later, looked way too old for the inhabitants of the story. Being in your twenties is different than being nearly forty. Although some of the youths came off as too young in this production, most of them looked appropriate; you would never know they were high schoolers. Besides, I would rather the cast seem too young in a rocking RENT than look too old for the show.
The cast at Corbett Prep is overall outstanding, with two performances that I will not soon forget.
I will make a bold claim here and now: Caleb Quezon makes the finest Angel I have ever seen. This is not a throwaway statement either, since I have experienced RENT well over a dozen times. And I include the brilliant Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Wilson Cruz from the original Broadway cast and the National Tour, respectively, in that statement. (And it's certainly true of the horrific Rent: Live earlier in the year where Valentina's Angel looked great but lost me the moment the character started to sing.) Angel, in complete drag, is a tough role when you think about it. The audience is cheering on a veritable dog killer, so the character must exude a Jupiter-sized charm and likability for us to overcome that and jump on the Angel bandwagon. Mr. Quezon has certainly accomplished that feat here .
"Today for You," not my favorite song, became one of the night's showstopper's in Quezon's hands. It was zanily alive, with the actor performing splits and hyperactive dancing as if this would be his last moment on stage. Seldom have I seen an actor connect with the other members of the cast the way Quezon does. He has turned a supporting role into the lead. And on top of all of that, he looks simply amazing in his Pussy Galore go-go boots.
This may seem cold, but rarely if ever have I cried when Angel dies. It may be that I'm so used to the show that I have become desensitized to this moment. But Quezon's Angel's demise was so unbearably heartbreaking that it made me cry at the end of "Without You," and when the young actor exited the stage, tears in his eyes, you could hear mass sniffling from the audience. Usually "Contact" is Angel's last moment, but with it gladly missing here, we have the proper time to mourn the death of this great character. (The director also brilliantly staged this scene for maximum effect.)
Quezon starts this fall at a top-flight theatre school (University of Michigan), and perhaps they do not know how lucky they are that this incredible young actor will be able to showcase his talents there for the next four years. But he got into this very prestigious program, so my guess is, they probably have more than an inkling of what's in store. Rarely have I seen a future so bright.
The other cast standout is Tallulah Nouss as Maureen. Her "Over the Moon" was another showstopper, complete with cow headpiece. This is Larsen's obvious jab at the performance art fad so popular in the 1980's and 1990's, and although never my favorite number, became one of the highlights of a show filled with highlights. Her comic timing was impeccable, with a rafter-shaking voice to match. At one moment in the show--"La Vie Boheme"--the table she's reclined on actually fell to the floor, and the actress tumbled to the ground. And in perfect Maureen fashion, Nouss laughed and quickly got up to her bemused bohemian cohorts. It's why there's nothing like live theatre, especially when young actors are mature enough to handle a literal mishap and turn it into theatre magic, never once breaking character.
There's a moment when Quezon and Nouss get to shine together, with a pantomimed Dorothy (Angel) and Toto (Maureen) routine during "La Vie Boheme."
The entire cast is uniformly excellent. Jack Sobel makes the most of the hapless Mark; he sings extraordinarily well and his amiable presence looms over the show. Tall and lithe Tyler Hostler-Mathis has the vocal chops as Roger, the shut-in ex-rocker; he is able to play a world-weariness which is difficult in a young person who is not yet wearied of the world. Nico Spataro, donning sunglasses, brings a likability out of the near-villain Benny, which is not an easy task. I love that while the entire ensemble is crying at the end of the Angel funeral song, "I'll Cover You (Reprise)," one person is not--Spataro's Benny. It's the perfect cold-hearted character choice, chilling and so good.
As Collins, Ryan Charest is an emotional powerhouse, very real, and he makes up for any vocal shortcomings with some heavy-lifting acting skills.
Alex Kinsley is quite strong as the drug-addicted Mimi, but I miss some of the playful pizzazz that Mimi can bring, especially in her big number, "Out Tonight." It's marvelous, but sometimes Mimi gets lost in the shuffle. Katie Tawzer has some major vocal pipes, and as Joanne, Maureen's uptight girlfriend, she holds her own. She's so emotionally closed off, however, that she sometimes seems to be zombified with absolutely no facial expressions, even when she's fed up while dealing with multiple phone calls, each with their own crises. This lack of facial expressions is a choice, no doubt, but is it the right choice all the time?
Elena Tarpley is a hoot as Mark's mom (heard on answering machines), and Lilly Dorton turns Alexi Darling into one of the most memorable characters of the show. The entire ensemble is breathtaking in such numbers as "Seasons of Love," "La Vie Boehme," and my favorite song in RENT, "Will I?" Kudos to Lillie Shelor, Sabrina Gilli, Keira Osborne, Dylan Mann (as The Man, a shadowy drug dealer), Will Sobel (so good at the beginning of "Will I?"), Madigan Reens, Justin Davis, Felicia Schneider and Sarah Yaker. Special mention must go to Adam Sardouk as Paul, hugging each cast member during "Will I?," and Jared Houde who stands out in every number he's in, whether twirling over a trash can or showcasing the best facial expressions in the cast. They are proof that every part, no matter how small, is important in every moment on the stage. Each ensemble member adds so much to this special version of RENT.
I love Dan Franke's Kandinsky-messy scaffolded set, littered with Keith Haring posters, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana flyers, grocery carts, and bicycle tires. (Also, glad to see a Radiohead poster in the mix; the set designer certainly has good taste.) Music director Jeremy Silverman's band is onstage the whole time, and they brilliantly rock the house: Ben Vyborny on bass, Jeff Henson on drums, Billy Whiting on guitar, and Anita Travaglino joining Silverman on the keyboards.
This production of RENT was made possible due to the skills of one multi-talented gent: director Seth Travaglino. He has been a teacher, a mentor and a friend to so many of these students for so many years, and those who are moving on to college will never forget what he means to them. Not just as performers, but as people. He has built an amazing theatre department at Corbett Prep, and while his students graduate, they always come back to work with him if given the chance. Travaglino treats his cast and crew like a family, and they return his love and passion by creating an amazing show, one I was honored to witness. That's the true power of this RENT--for many of these youths, it stands as their last adolescent hurrah before moving on to tackle the world.