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Review: Latoya McCormick and Topher Warren Rock the House in Eight O'Clock Theatre's Production of Jonathan Larson's RENT

Rent runs through Sunday, August 14 at Eight O'Clock Theatre.

Review: Latoya McCormick and Topher Warren Rock the House in Eight O'Clock Theatre's Production of Jonathan Larson's RENT

I'm glad that the people at Eight O'Clock Theatre agree with me: Jonathan Larson's RENT can only work as a period piece. The pre-show announcement mentions this, adding a line about the musical's use of "outdated terminology" and that we can use the work to see how "far we've grown." Larson always wanted to bring "musical theatre to the MTV generation," and RENT turned out to be that gift. What Hair was to the young boomers and hippies, RENT was to the Gen X slackers.

And like Hair, RENT is now a relic. It may be twenty-six years old, but it might as well be fifty. It actually seemed dated when it first opened, like a carton of milk expired by five years. For instance, the character Mark's girlfriend, Maureen, had left him for a woman much to the sniggering of his roommates, even though it's a storyline straight out of the first season of Friends, which pre-dated RENT by two years. And the musical's mantra of "no day but today" would be sadly underscored by the early death of composer-lyricist Mr. Larson (he died of an aortic aneurysm just before RENT'S Off-Broadway premiere). The show would have been a hit had he lived, no doubt, but his death added the necessary fuel to turn RENT into a cultural phenomenon, winning Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize and now a new generation of RENT-heads.

Although Jonathan Larson lived in Alphabet City, the musical sometimes seems like a teenager's fantasy of this bohemian rhapsodic life. RENT isn't really cutting edge; its characters may be, but the show is too eager to please, including a cheap cop-out of an ending. I know I am alone here, and audiences wouldn't stand for an ovation with any depressing finale (like the original Puccini work). RENT is a celebration of life and survival, but the ending will always be a cheat to me. SPOILER ALERT: A happy ending isn't necessarily the same thing as a successful one.

Larson has obviously written some of the finest songs of the past thirty years, but sometimes his lyrics make my teeth ache. Such as this Angel quote: "Yes, this body provides a comfortable home/For the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome." Or the bohemians saluting, "To Sontag, to Sondheim, to anything taboo..." Please, as I have stated before, Susan Sontag and the great Stephen Sondheim were a lot of things, but taboo was never one of them (and no true bohemian outside of Jonathan Larson would ever cite Sondheim, Broadway's greatest composer, as an example of cutting edge). I know it's Larson's salute to a mentor, but it drives the purist in me crazy.

But RENT-heads abound, and my quibbles are a minority opinion, especially to a generation who has grown up on "Take Me or Leave Me," "One Song Glory," "What You Own," and perhaps the biggest Broadway song of the 1990s, "Seasons of Love."

Based on Puccini's La Boheme, this rock-driven musical follows the exploits, the ups and downs, of New York's "Alphabet City avant-garde"--filmmakers, guitarists, strippers, drag queens, performance artists, AIDS patients, turncoats, and the homeless on every corner. Narrated by nerdy filmmaker Mark Cohen, it's Christmas Eve and we meet burned-out ex-junkie guitarist with AIDS, Roger, who falls for addict-stripper Mimi, who also has AIDS. Roger strums his guitar, searching for the right song, while Mimi is searching for the right fix. Roger and Mark's AIDS-afflicted friend, Tom Collins, finds the love of his life with the drag queen drummer, Angel, who (like all of the above except for Mark) has AIDS. And there's the "yuppie scum," Benny, who wants to shut down the activistic performance art show of Mark's lesbian ex-girlfriend, Maureen, who's having difficulties with her lover, the upper crust Joanne. Act 1 highlights a single night in the life of these individuals, while ACT 2 features a full year in their lives.

I've seen numerous productions of RENT over the past quarter of a century, from the National Broadway Tour in 1998 to the tepid 2005 film, from professional and community theatre venues to college and even high school versions. (I'm waiting for that one gutsy elementary school to try RENT JR., but I guess Florida is currently not the state to experiment with such daring.) And last night I was honored to attend Eight O'Clock Theatre's interpretation of this classic, directed by the visionary Derek Baxter.

EOT's RENT is a high-spirited affair with some incredible vocals and gritty work by the cast, but it's also all over the place. You sense the show trying to find its bearings, its pace and its tone, much like Roger trying to find the perfect song. Sometimes it galvanizes and soars, and other times it makes us scratch our collective heads. This may have to do with the real-world intruding on the show's run, when several cast members got covid during its opening week and various fill-ins had to, yes, fill in for them. So, in a sense, even though this was the show's second weekend, I got to see the real opening night with the original EOT cast.

Cody Carlson was born to play Mark. Snarling and writhing, he's the most energetic Mark I've ever seen. With his beard, glasses and spiky hair, he's a proud nerd, a geek god, resembling filmmaker Kevin Smith and at times sounding like Hermey the Dentist Elf. He's the glue that holds the show together, brilliantly using his body and voice to tell Larson's story. Incredible work; it would be a much lesser show (and a much duller one) without him.

Matthew Morris as Roger is a phenomenal singer and guitarist, donning a Led Zeppelin shirt and (later) a Live Aid t-shirt. I wonder if he looks too young to play the jaded burned-out rocker who's down on his luck and never leaves the house; although the part reminds me of Kurt Cobain, Mr. Morris exudes so much youthfulness that he looks like a member of Hanson. But when he sings, he rocks the rafters. And his last song, "Your Eyes" (never my favorite before this), hits new highs and is one of the best of the night. (I love it when a performer takes a song that I've never grown accustomed to, and makes me have a newfound appreciation of it; kudos, Mr. Morris!) I just wish that Roger was staged so that he could sing it directly to Mimi instead of having his back to her.

Shelly Johnson has some major vocal chops as Mimi. There's a lost quality to her, a danger, and that works well. Her "Without You" was stunning, even though I wasn't a fan of the way it was staged (or barely staged), and her "Out Tonight" burst with fun (she could have gone even further with it). I also wanted to see even more of a connection with her and Roger throughout the show. I wrote in my notebook regarding their relationship: "Needs to be taken to the next level."

Sarah Roehm is a revelation as Maureen, especially in her show-stopping "Over the Moon." It's a parody of the performance art craze, so popular in the 90s, and Ms. Roehm plays it like Laurie Anderson caught in a strait jacket. There's a moment when her slurps and moos echo and it's exhilarating. The audience joins in the mooing, and it's like a herd of Elsie's stampeding the theatre. Later, in the Life Café, she even moons Benny and the jet-set execs with him.

As Benny, Gabe Flores is making a career out of playing yuppie villains with a slick 80s vibe. Liberty Mack is a welcome sight as Joanne, hitting some wonderful notes in her numbers. David Eaton's dragtastic Angel has his moments and he shows much promise. Still, he's supposed to be a dynamic drummer, but he's no Buddy Rich here. Angel is the audience's favorite as a character (and he certainly was in this performance), but he's never been mine in any of the productions; this may have to do with his being the unrepentant killer of a yappy dog named Evita, an act that is giggled about throughout the show. (Here's a thought: Why don't we have another musical called Evita, not based on the Argentinian First Lady but on the dog that Angel kills in RENT.)

My favorite song in RENT, "Will I?", is given the gold standard treatment. Led by Griffin Spriggs, the glorious harmonies abound in Larson's most gorgeous song (thanks to William Coleman's musical direction). The whole cast enters the stage, and the lighting above seems heavenly, but on the ground it's like the denizens are trapped in a sort of prison. The sick sing of fear--but not fear of losing their looks, and not of any future pain, but of losing their dignity. It's lovely and sorrowful and will tug the heart of even the most cold-hearted bigot. The ensemble is the heart and soul of RENT, and they really bring it home here: Aidan Anderson, Devan Bittinger, Susan Black, Greg Bowen, Rei Capote, Lauren Dykes, the talented Steven Fox, Coral Furtado, Arbie Ignacio, the likable Topher Larkin, the versatile Lisa Malloy, David O'Brien, Alivia Quattrocki, DJ Schuett (welcome!), Michelle Stratton and Katie Voorhees.

But two cast members stand out above all. Topher Warren plays Tom Collins, who's back to New York after teaching at MIT for months, and he pulls out all the stops and will tear your heart out. In the rapturous "Santa Fe," he's lit by numerous stars (great lighting here by Tom Hansen), lost amid the cosmos as he sings to a future with his love, Angel. Mr. Warren pulls his best Levi Stubbs here in a song of hope and escape. But he reserves his piece de resistance for his "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" sung at a memorial service. Beautifully performed, full of so much passion, he withers to the ground, collapsing during his final note; it's the perfect physical depiction of loss--someone whose mourning overtakes them so strongly that they literally wilt to the floor. I dare you not to cry after hearing Topher Warren's heartbreaking version of this song.

But the best of the best in this RENT belongs to Latoya McCormick. Although an ensemble member, she's riveting as a homeless person with a sassy mouth. But she comes into her own in the show's most famous number, "Seasons of Love." When the first notes of the song played, the audience immediately burst into applause. But Ms. McCormick took it home, and her stirring vocals here, and throughout the show, made me think that Mahalia and Aretha better look out. When Brian Wilson once claimed that music is the voice of God, he could have been referring to Ms. McCormick here. Stunning, breathtaking, awe-inspiring.

Director Derek Baxter is a genius and he takes a risk here; he offers a presentational approach to the show, where we see the backstage and all of the tech people at work. It's a loosey goosey affair. There are some terrific directorial moments. The police singing the line, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas," but in their tone it's given a brand new meaning. And the pusher who croons, "It's beginning to snow," as he snorts cocaine off his finger. But there are some moments that I question. "Without You," though beautifully sung, just sort of sits there, and then when it becomes a duet, they stand side by side (where we don't feel what it's like to be "without you"). And the death of a major character in Act 2 is not given the proper moment; it's sort of just there and it happens all too fast for my tastes. I've never previously been a fan of the song "Contact," but I kind of like what they do here. Using shadow play and bodies writhing, it's like a combination of the "Tick Tock" number from Company and the "Walking in Space" orgy sequence from Hair.

Tom Hansen's presentational set works to bring Mr. Baxter's see-the-backstage-shenanigans vision to life, and Debbi Lastinger's costumes suit the cast (particularly Angel's Pussy Galore garb, complete with flashing Christmas lights underneath).

Try to come early so you can hear the sound check in front of the audience. Cast members mingle on the stage and, individually, crooned portions of "Linger' by the Cranberries (big 90s vibe there), "New York State of Mind" and, in honor of Kate Bush or Stranger Things or both, "Running Up That Hill." Someone else crooned "Hopelessly Devoted to You," obviously a salute to the late great Olivia Newton-John, and one of the actors delivered "Dancing Queen" with the wrong lyrics (singing "drive" instead of "jive"). All in good fun.

RENT is a snapshot of a time long gone, years before social media, iPhones and the pandemic. Jonathan Larson was onto something, and his biggest work celebrates these people on the fringes living in America at the end of the Millennium. It's too bad he didn't get to see all the accolades and love his work has brought to this world. (It was a full house the night I saw it and the audience rose quickly for a standing ovation; everybody, it seems, loves RENT.) The main tragedy in Mr. Larson's passing, for audiences at least, is that we are denied all of his future works. He would be in early sixties right now, and no telling what treasures he would have created. So we celebrate what he left behind, and you can start by seeing Eight O'Clock Theatre's production of RENT at the Central Park Performing Arts Center in Largo. It closes soon--Sunday, August 14--which means just one thing: "No day but today."

Regional Awards

From This Author - Peter Nason

    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in ... (read more about this author)

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