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Review: An Experimentally Avant-Garde Staging of Jonathan Larson's RENT at Eight O'Clock Theatre

Review: An Experimentally Avant-Garde Staging of Jonathan Larson's RENT at Eight O'Clock Theatre

Read our review of Rent here!

"Will I lose my dignity, will someone care, will I wake tomorrow, from this nightmare?"

"How do you measure a year in the life?"

Jonathan Larson a name synonymous with American Musical Theatre in the 90s penned this phenom of a Musical based on the Puccini Opera La Boheme. Featuring a rock and roll score unlike anything heard on Broadway at its time, Rent received critical and mass acclaim following the untimely passing of its creator, who passed prior to its premiere.

With such recognizable songs as, "Take Me or Leave Me," "Will I," "Out Tonight," and probably the biggest musical theatre anthem of its time "Seasons of Love," Rent went on to achieve Tony and Pulitzer claim and won the world over with its unique score and storyline of unlikely characters who were mirror images of very real people in its time. Still a musical that has many outdated references manages mass appeal today.

The story in all its complexities introduces us to a group of Artists, Filmmakers, Drag Queens, and Performance Artists living their daily lives in a tent city of Manhattan. Struck down on their luck by rent increases, eviction notices, and just plain surviving they find themselves on the cusp of a new reality. The AIDS epidemic is sweeping the nation and all but one of the named characters either has it or personally knows someone affected by the disease. Mark Cohen a documentary filmmaker is seen filming "without a script," a night in the lives of those within the community. We meet his roommate Roger (who has AIDS), a dancer/junkie in Mimi (who has AIDS), and is also Roger's love interest. Tom Collins (who has AIDS) a former roommate of Mark and Roger has just come back from a recent stint as a Professor at MIT and stumbles upon Angel (who has AIDS) a bucket drummer/drag queen who becomes the love of his life. Maureen Johnson, Mark's ex-girlfriend is in a relationship with the well-to-do Joanne. Act 1 tells about a single night in the lives of these individuals, and Act 2 a full year, the impact that they bring on each other forever changes their lives. Larson's Rent become a cultural phenomenon and is a celebration of life and survival, something we all need now more than ever, which is why I find it appropriate that the folks at Eight O'Clock tackled this behemoth of a piece when they did. Despite ever rising challenges of an ever changing world, the cast and crew came together to deliver a well-known musical in their own fashion, and this cast showed up to show out. You can tell the joy of the family they created amidst the harsh undertones that lie within the story, and that is worth a standing ovation over anything else.

Not to say that Rent is a perfect piece, because as we have mentioned before the dated references definitely prove that, but the folks at Eight O'Clock do a good job of bringing the world of Rent into our own cultural landscape and the world in which we currently navigate. Much of the kudos go to the pre-show announcement prior to the show that sets the tone for the evening.

Local Renaissance Man and Esteemed Director Derek Baxter put together a stellar cast, that showed up to leave it all on the stage.

Cody Carlson is enigmatic as the nerdy narrator Mark Cohen, his facial expressions and general energy onstage burst at the seams and he definitely sets the pace for the show. Without a passionate and completely energetic Mark, the show has a chance to fall flat, but Cody lights up the stage in every instance.

As Roger Davis, Mark's roommate Matthew Morris delivers an exceptional turn as the burned-out rocker looking desperately for love and the perfect song. I will say however at times, Morris' Roger comes across as younger and more youthful in nature than he should. A qualm more easily overlooked each time he plays the guitar, and especially in the latter half of the show when Morris delivers the piece de resistance of the entire evening with his rendition of "Your Eyes." I for one have not heard it sung quite in the same delivery and he soars to new heights in a time of great pain.

As the Dancer/junkie girlfriend Mimi, Shelley Johnson is in her element. "Without You" is delivered so exceptionally well you hang on every word, and feel her pain. I agree with a colleague that the staging of that number was slightly troubling, in that you didn't get enough sense of distance and loss between the two standing practically back to back. Ms. Johnson's rendition of "Out Tonight," was fun and energetic, but I needed more push of the envelope so to speak. I need to feel Mimi's reckless abandonment and for me this fell flat. Shelley's vocal power and stage presence will carry her far, and she will be one I will be watching to see where she goes next.

My one quandary with the two lovers is their connection. At times it feels more like brother and sister, and not the love we expect, we want to feel that tension and almost out-of-this-world love.

As Maureen Johnson, Sarah Roehm is truly where she needs to be. This role was made for her and she delivers ten-fold. Her delivery of the performance piece "Over the Moon," is top-notch and full of audience participation, and her moments with Liberty Mack's Joanne are exceptional. When the two come together for "Take Me or Leave Me," it's a combination of epic proportions. Liberty Mack is wonderful as Joanne, and she can riff with the best of them. The purist in me had a slight issue with the addition of some of the riffs but slowly the feeling went away as her exceptional stage presence blended seamlessly and it became a part of who Joanne is.

As Benny Gabe Flores makes for the perfect villain. He has a confident air about him, but like a snake lying in the shadows could attack at any moment. David Eaton as Angel has some moments and definitely displays his talent. His number "Today for You Tomorrow for Me," really should introduce him to the world of these characters, and for that should be a show-stopper. The number itself fell flat on energy, and I just wanted more.

Topher Warren as Tom Collins hands down proved to be best in show! His heartbreaking "Ill Cover You Reprise," is a moment that needs to be witnessed. When a Performer takes the reigns of the material they are given, and pushes it to the next level, leaving it all on the stage, there is something to be said. This performance for me was the "Lightning in a Bottle" moment, and Topher Warren excelled to another level here.

As an Ensemble piece, they become the glue that holds the show together. Rent in its time and through the years has created a community all its own. As they say it truly takes a village and with an Ensemble including, (Aidan Anderson, Devan Bittinger, Susan Black, Greg Bowen, Rei Capote, Lauren Dykes, Steven Fox, Coral Furtado, Arbie Ignacio, Topher Larkin, Lisa Malloy, David O'Brien, Alivia Quattrocki, DJ Schuett, Michelle Straton, Griffin Spriggs, Latoya McCormick (who could sing anything and it would be certified Gold,) and Katie Vorhees) they have achieved just that.

Talented Director Derek Baxter achieved a very experimental and avant-garde approach to this version of Rent. With all the guesswork erased, and a bare-bones, up-front, tech in-your-face facade, this company's version left nothing up to the imagination. Some questioning staging moments happened, with the aforementioned "Without You," and the death of a principal character seemed to have almost come and gone. Leaving the characters onstage praising the life they lead, and it almost seemed snatched from us in the blink of an eye.

Technically sound Tom Hansen's lighting and set design lend well to Director Derek Baxter's vision, and Debbi Lastinger's costumes help blend the world of "little bohemia" together beautifully.

Jonathan Larson's Rent encapsulates the term phenomenon synonymous with its time in history, and is still very much relevant to the core of the world in which we are all currently residing. Characters dragged down by ever rising prices, facing homelessness and an epidemic that is changing their world in a blink of an eye. Now the two hour traffic of our scene, rising inflation, rent at an all time high, and a pandemic world view thats become an all too scary norm in our day to day. This company has endured its challenges throughout the process of bringing Rent to the stage, but overall exceeded in the goal they set to achieve. Rent is about love, community, and above all hope. A celebration of life and survival against insurmountable odds. Rent did close following this afternoon's performance (08/14/22), but for those of us lucky enough to experience its power, and its resonance it provided a welcomed escape from our daily lives.

You can learn more about the outstanding programming offered at Eight O'Clock Theatre by visiting eightoclocktheatre.com.

"NO DAY BUT TODAY!"

PHOTO CREDIT: CHAZ D PHOTOGRAPHY




From This Author - Drew Eberhard


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