Chicago Theatre Review
A Season of Love
Rent – Theo Ubique
With more than 50 shows and 40 Jeff Awards to their credit, Theo Ubique’s highly respected professional theatre now presents a fervent, intimate, deeply moving production of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer, Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning musical. The show re-imagines Puccini’s “La Boheme” as a rock opera set in Manhattan’s lower east side Alphabet City during the 90’s. A community of artists struggle to create and survive against all odds, including poverty, prejudice, drug addiction and the AIDS epidemic. The musical teems with colorful, charismatic characters, troubled relationships and the challenges of being young, gifted and impoverished.
As with his previous, critically acclaimed productions, such as “Titanic” at Griffin and “Seussical” at CST, Scott Weinstein has directed this musical with sound artistic vision and deep empathy. This includes a real compassion for the play’s characters. Weinstein and Artistic Director Fred Anzevino have not only assembled an cast of talented actor/singers, but they’ve found actors who are the same age as the characters they’re playing. This is a big plus, and it brings a realism to this production not usually seen. This production hits home when audiences realize that these actors are the Gen-Xers about whom this show was written. Weinstein’s talented cast can actually understand and feel the struggle their characters are experiencing. Audiences will find themselves richer for the authenticity of this experience.
Another important component of this production lies in its intimacy. Unlike most productions, this version of Larson’s musical isn’t nearly as presentational. It’s environmental. Of course, much of it plays out on a modest stage that lies only inches from the audience. But the musical also explodes all over the tiny No Exit Cafe. Down the center aisle, on an elevated platform and on petite playing areas perched all over the theatre, Scott Weinstein has staged his story so close to theatergoers that we can almost feel the heat of their passion. Adam Veness’ superbly designed and executed set mirrors the grit and graffiti of the city. Incorporating the skills provided by local community street artists, Mr. Veness has totally transformed the Cafe to resemble the locale and atmosphere of this story. Every wall is decked out in colorful, contemporary murals and accented with tags and captions by a dozen local artists.
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. Benny (an excellent Jaymes Osborne), Mimi’s former boyfriend, is their slumlord and married to a wealthy young woman. As such, he’s depicted as the antagonist, yuppie scum representing the much-hated establishment. While he demands back rent from his friends Benny attempts to evict them; he’s also trying to drive 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. Weinstein’s production is filled with so many beautiful, heartfelt performances and songs that will haunt audiences long after the final curtain. Matt Edmonds is outstanding as Mark. His power and passion leads this talented ensemble, especially in the title number, the finale of Act I “La Vie Boheme” and in the salty “Tango Maureen.” Matt’s work is simply stellar. He’s matched note-for-note by handsome Patrick Rooney as Roger, a role he was born to play. This astounding vocalist wrings so much honesty and angst from his songs, particularly “One Song Glory” and the sorrowful “Your Eyes.” Mr. Rooney’s duet with Edmonds, “What You Own,” is especially fierce and finite.
Chuckie Benson is stalwart and affecting as Tom Collins. Gifted with an honesty and a velvety voice that wraps around every note and lyric, this new Chicago actor is one to watch. In her dynamic Theo Ubique debut, Nicole Michelle Haskins is one impressive and remarkable singer/performer. Playing JoAnne, she’s filled with musical and dramatic power. There’s no question that this young woman has the guts necessary to fight for her lover, Maureen, played by the impressive Courtney Jones. Their compelling duet, “Take Me or Leave Me,” stands out as one of the show’s finest musical moments. Ms. Jones’ performance of “Over the Moon” is fantastic and fun, especially enhanced by Kristof Janezic’s unique lighting and Brock Alter’s projections.
In her impressive professional debut, Savannah Hoover is heartbreakingly vulnerable and touching as the tragic Mimi. She delights musically, particularly in her sensuous duet with Roger, “Light My Candle,” and in her show-stopping, “Out Tonight.” And lithe Aubrey McGrath, so wonderful in the Court’s “Secret Garden,” impresses as Angel, particularly in his sassy solo, “Today 4 U,” and in his poignant duet with Mr. Benson, “I’ll Cover You.” This young actor brings forward all the love and compassion of this character and lays it out on the stage. Mr. McGrath is truly outstanding in this role.
The ensemble of actors, who provide the musical backup, play assorted parents, police, drug dealers, and the homeless. They’re all terrific, especially Danielle Davis, Parker Guidry and Ron King. Musically led by Jeremy Ramey, and accompanied by his impressive four-member band, this entire cast lends their power and passion to every musical number, particularly the play’s anthem, “Seasons of Love.”
In a musical that’s been around since its 1993 workshop, playing both on and Off-Broadway over the years and again in a 2011 revival, not to mention scores of National and International Tours, educational and regional venues everywhere, most of the world is now familiar with Larson’s masterpiece. There was even a 2005 film version of the musical. But Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s electrifying 2016 production breathes new life into this modern classic. It’s deserving of both first-time audiences and Rent-heads, alike. This homage to the 20th anniversary of the musical is personal and special, thanks to Scott Weinstein’s excellent, intimate staging. With a gorgeous environmental scenic design by Adam Veness, dynamic choreography by Daniel Spagnuolo, appropriately period costuming by Izumi Inaba and rich, exciting accompaniment by Jeremy Ramey and his band, this production will rank as one of this theatre’s finest contributions to the Chicago musical scene. It truly marks a Season of Love.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 14-May 1 by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 800-595-4849 or by going to www.theo-u.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com