Chicago Theatre Review
A Season of Love from Beginning to End
Only in its second year, Naperville’s unique professional theatre closes the season with a fervent, deeply earnest production of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer, Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning musical that re-imagines Puccini’s “La boheme” as a rock opera set in Manhattan’s lower east side Alphabet City during the ’90’s. The group of artists is struggling to create and survive against all odds, including prejudice, poverty, drugs and the AIDS epidemic and death. The musical is rife with colorful, memorable characters, troubled relationships and the many challenges of being young, gifted and impoverished.
Directed with care and empathy, both for his large cast, as well as the play’s characters, Jeffrey Cass has not only assembled an ensemble of excellent performers, but has been fortunate to attract actors who are the same age as the characters they’re playing. This makes his production sensible, realistic and more exciting when you realize that these actors aren’t the 30-year-old Gen-Xers about whom this show was written; these are talented younger men and women who can actually feel this kind of struggle and revere this piece as much as their director. It shows that the entire cast and crew understands the importance of retelling this story to today’s audiences, who will find themselves richer for the authenticity of the experience.
In a nutshell, the musical tells the story of eight impoverished, artistic friends, gay and straight, healthy or living with HIV/AIDS, clean or drug-dependent, who are trying to survive what life has thrown at them at the end of the Millennium. Relationships emerge, shift, end and bloom again throughout the play. Mark, the musical’s narrator, is an independent film-maker rooming with long-time friend Roger, a struggling young song-writer. Mark has recently ended his relationship with Maureen, a spunky performance artist, who has found new love with attorney, Joanne. Tom Collins, another roommate, is a philosophy instructor and gay activist. After he meets and falls in love with Angel, a young street percussionist and drag performer, the two move in together. Mimi, an exotic club dancer and drug addict, also living in the same rundown apartment building, becomes attracted to Roger one evening. Benny (Mimi’s former boyfriend) and an ex-roommate of Mark, Roger, Collins and Maureen, has married a wealthy young woman and become his friends‘ landlord. As such, he is seen as yuppie scum and a representative of the much-hated “establishment,” particularly when he both demands the back rent from his friends while attempting to evict them, while driving the homeless from the empty lot next door. In addition to all of this, Roger, Mimi, Angel and Collins are all suffering from various stages of AIDS.
Mr. Cass‘ production is as filled with as many beautiful, heartfelt performances as it is with songs that will haunt you long after the final curtain. Kyle Michael Kuhlman is outstanding as Mark. His strength and charisma leads this talented ensemble, especially in the title number, “La Vie Boheme” and the “Tango Maureen.” Kyle’s work is simply stellar. David Robbins is affecting as Tom Collins. Gifted with an honesty and a velvety voice that wraps around every note and lyric, this is a young actor to watch. A newcomer to Chicago, Rachel Pallante is another remarkable singer/performer. As Joanne, she impressively displays the power and guts to fight for Maureen, the impressive Stephanie Souza. Their compelling duet, “Take Me or Leave Me,” stands out as one of the show’s finest musical moments. Nicole Lambert has many excellent scenes as Mimi, particularly her duet with Roger, “Light My Candle,” and in her show-stopping, “Out Tonight.” And Jose A. Guerrero impresses as Angel, particularly in his sassy solo, “Today 4 U,” and in his poignant duet with Robbins, “I’ll Cover You.”
The ensemble of actors who play parents, police, drug dealers, and the homeless are all terrific. Especially effective are Brittany Bradshaw, Brett Baleskle and Donterrio Johnson, all of whom lend their power and passion to the play’s anthem, “Seasons of Love.” Donald Fitzgibbons is particularly ominous as The Man, who deals drugs throughout the story, and Christopher Selefski’s Squeegee Man is also strong. As Roger, Rusty Koenig, although an adequate singer/musician, doesn’t quite match the strength and intensity of his cast-mates. It’s as if he’s playing the character’s depression about death rather than his ferocity for life. He does rise to the occasion in his duets with Mimi, especially in “Another Day” and “Without You,” and again in the show’s finale, “Your Eyes.” Stephen Bernal’s Benny, while blessed with a nice singing voice, doesn’t display the same strength as the other characters. As the play’s antagonist he offers very little adversity to challenge the other characters, but perhaps as he settles into this role he’ll find his strength.
In a musical that’s been around since its 1993 workshop performances, playing both on and Off-Broadway for over 12 years, again in a 2011 revival, and in scores of National and International Tours, educational and regional venues everywhere, most of the world is now familiar with Larson’s masterpiece. But BrightSide Theatre’s electrifying production breathes new life into this modern classic, deserving of first-time audiences and Rent-heads, alike. As a finale to their second season, this production promises future “Seasons of Love” to come.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 14-30 by BrightSide Theatre, at Meiley-Swallow Hall at North Central College, 31 S. Ellsworth, Naperville, IL.
Additional information about this and other area productions may be found atwww.theatreinchicago.com.