Chicago Theatre Review
This “Rent” Is Due Your Full Attention.
By Lazlo Collins
I must disclose at the beginning of this review that I was never one of those super “Rent” fans. In 1996 when “Rent” was on Broadway, it was a SENSATION. It was a groundbreaking musical of the ages. Well, I got on board the “Rent” bus a bit late. Finally, when I went to see “Rent”, I enjoyed the music, I loved La Boehme, and it was great; it just wasn’t my favorite. I felt myself wanting to yell, “Stop whining and get a freakin’ job!” Wow, so judgmental, right?
I further must disclose that when I first saw “Rent”, I myself was losing someone I loved from AIDS, and that somehow I just wasn’t ready to embrace the musical’s messages and intricate relationships.
And here we are, at the American Theater Co. and About Face’s current collaboration of “Rent” directed by David Cromer and it moved me for the first time. I was ready to experience the story of love, art, and AIDS in a time of turmoil.
This high energy and gritty production hits the mark, and moves through the 90’s with all the force needed to sustain the story through its paces. While I am not sure that ALL the messages stand up through time; but the intentions of love, understanding, acceptance, and someone taken too soon are all themes that are explored beautifully in this production.
Kudos to Cromer for keeping the feel of a gritty warehouse or city street, placing the audience as if just spectators to the scenes unfolded in the profile style staging. It kept me searching the playing area for actors and action; but allowing for some fantastic staging in songs like, “Santa Fe”, “I’ll Cover You, reprise”, and “Finale A”.
The energy of the songs and the acting was immediate and in your face. I enjoyed each character as they moved through their own stories. The supporting ensemble cast was up to the task as well.
Roommates Mark Cohen (Alan Schmuckler) and Roger Davis (Derrick Trumbly) get the ball rolling with conviction and intensity in their respective roles. Mr. Schmuckler is a delight in his role as documentarian and smited boyfriend. He is sweet and loyal, while his character grows throughout the show. Mr. Trumbly grew on me as his character discovers his own voice after the discovery of HIV. Both voices were excellent.
The shows happenstance couple Tom Collins (Alex Agard) and Angel Dumott Schunard (Esteban Andres Cruz) proves love is alive in the time AIDS. Well sung and acted too, I might add. I enjoyed each man’s energy. I especially enjoyed Mr. Cruz’s more real approach to Angel. It was refreshing to see this character as a real person, and not just a man in drag acting like a girl.
The playful couple of Joanne Jefferson (Lili-Anne Brown) and Maureen Johnson (Aileen May) are as opposite as they may be. Both are talented singers and actresses. I loved Ms. Brown’s warm voice and sweet smile. Ms. May exudes a confidence necessary for her bravado character. Her conviction in Over the Moon” was especially good. Ms. Brown shows her skills on the duet with Mark Cohen in “Tango: Maureen”
As Roger’s love interest, Mimi Marquez (Grace Gealey) comes on strong as brash misunderstood femme fatale. Ms. Gaeley puts in a well-played performance. I really enjoyed her naïve moments, that were street smart but emotionally immature. Her role is unforgiving in its predictability. I thought she played the character with believability; not to mention pleasing vocals.
I was really struck by the great acting in this production. The acting combined with the singing was believable, isn’t that the point anyway? At very particular times, the vocals seemed strained; while the quieter moments of the music seemed more successful for the audience. It seems they will need to tweak there sound amplification system to maximize the vocals. I was on the other side of the house from the band and sometimes they were too loud. This is an easy adjustment that will only improve what is a pleasant soundtrack.
Congratulations to the artistic design crew. Collette Pollard‘s warehouse set, with simple, but well placed graffiti, and Christmas décor is perfect. Lighting designer Heather Gilbert put lights everywhere, but kept the mood mysterious and somber. David Hyman’s costumes were superb. I LOVED the dirty, ripped, but appropriately ragged costumes for the main characters. Angel’s “holiday outfit” was an appropriate homage to the original costume, but with a more real, gritty feel.
I would be remiss without mentioning the band. The pit was alive with many layers of sound and fury; seemingly like far more instruments than actually on the premises. Thanks for making the music great.
And finally, Mr. Cromer brings experience and style to this production. This is a difficult undertaking and is overall a success. He deconstructs the observational pop of the original production, and brings us more ‘in-to” the story as it is happening, as if it happening to us all over again. Taking us back to the ‘90’s, with the loss, the love, and the music the stage will NEVER forget.
“Rent” runs through 17 June 2012 at the American Theater Company, 1909 W Byron in Chicago. For tickets call 773-409-4125 or go to www.atcweb.org
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow