Following their outstanding 2009 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, The El Camino College Theatre Department has made Jonathan Larson’s Rent this year’s annual musical theater production, and the result is a thoroughly professional, often exciting staging of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning hit.
As most people probably already know, Rent takes Puccini’s La Boheme as its starting-off point, telling the story of a group of young “bohemians” living in the mean streets of New York in the late 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Would-be filmmaker Mark (Neil Moutrey) serves as narrator/observer, commenting on the lives of Roger (Keoni Lambert), his aspiring songwriter roommate; Mimi (Aliya Stuart), the Cat Scratch Club exotic dancer whom Roger falls for; drag queen Angel (Tony Melson) and philosophy prof Collins (Edward Jenkins), who fall in love; Maureen (Lauren Ashley Durant), Mark’s bisexual performance artist ex-wife; Joanne (Ann-Marie Wightman), Maureen’s lawyer girlfriend; and Benny (Lorne Stevenson), Mark and Roger’s ex-roommate and current nemesis. The cast is multiracial and multicultural. Roger and Mimi are HIV positive. Angel and Collins have AIDS. “AZT breaks” punctuate the show at frequent intervals.
Larson’s songs (“One Song Glory,” “La Vie Boheme,” “Seasons Of Love,” “Take Me Or Leave Me,” etc.) were unlike any others previously heard on a Broadway stage, with a pulsating rock beat and gritty lyrics, and the plotlines, revolving around straight, gay, and bisexual characters, many of whom were living with HIV or AIDS, were as current as the day’s headlines. Rent revolutionized the Broadway musical, much as Oklahoma! and West Side Story had in their day.
With its scaffolding and raised platforms atop an otherwise mostly bare stage, Sean Vasquez’s set design has clearly been inspired by the Broadway original, yet is just different enough to allow director Bill Georges to restage scenes in fresh new ways. Characters occasionally come out onto a landing built where the orchestra pit would normally be, giving an up-close-and-personal feel to several pivotal scenes and songs. There’s even a fireman’s pole leading down from one of the platforms, which both Angel and Mimi use to showy effect.
Of the numerous local productions of Rent which have been staged so far this year, none has benefitted from the level of technical resources available on a college campus like El Camino’s. Marcelo Cacciagioni’s lighting and Kenny Lefort’s sound design are each as exciting as it gets. Cacciagioni lights up the stage in frequently iridescent colors, has pin spots twirling out over the audience, and suspends a pair of follow spot operators way up at the top of the proscenium for added variety and pizzazz. (The duo also toss down handfuls of artificial snow whenever the ensemble sings “it’s beginning to snow” from the song of the same name.) Lefort takes full advantage of the mid-sized Campus Theatre’s state-of-the-art sound system to send out the sidestage band’s musical accompaniment in crystal clear multichannel stereo. Kim DeShazo’s costumes (she also did hair and makeup design) take the Broadway originals as inspiration, but have very much their own look as well. On the minus side, it’s somewhat disappointing that the orgy sequence which precedes Angel’s death had to be cleaned up to a tame PG version for a college campus production.
A number of cast members deliver truly standout performances. Stuart plays Mimi like a sex kitten on the prowl, is a phenomenal dancer, and sings with a powerful belt and gorgeous trace of vibrato, making her Mimi one of the most exciting ever. Melson creates a tougher, more masculine Angel than we’ve seen before, and it works. Collins, after all, met and fell in love with Angel as a man, and Melson’s interpretation makes Angel’s drag more a matter of “Hey I look good this way” than “Hey I’m really a girl.” I liked the fresh twist, as well as Melson’s terrific vocal work. Durant is a sexy, sassy hoot as Maureen, especially in a memorably quirky “Over The Moon,” and her pipes rival those of Eden Espinosa on the Final Broadway Performance DVD. Moutrey has Mark’s nerdy “outsiderness” down pat, sings just fine, and has a momentary breakdown at the end of “Halloween” that is not just a powerful surprise, but one that effectively reveals a deeper pain in Mark than other actors have let us see. Wightman spices up Joanne’s grumpiness with considerable charm, and dances a mean “Tango Maureen” with Moutrey.
Lambert’s Roger lacks the lean-and-hungry look essential for the starving, HIV-infected musician, but scores vocal points in Roger’s high-power moments. Jenkins does mostly fine work as Collins, but a simpler approach to the “I’ll Cover You,” just letting those spectacular high notes speak for themselves, would make for a more emotional effect. Stevenson does his best as Benny, but like Lambert seems miscast in the role. Melson/Jenkins have believable romantic chemistry together, Lambert/Stuart and Durant/Wightman less so.
The highly committed ensemble (Allen Barstow, Jason Bornstein, Joohong Lange, Pamela Maclean, Larry Moreno, Cindy Padilla, Mel Brian Patron, Angelica Roque, and Brittney Wheeler) perform energetically and sing in terrific harmonies. Among them, Wheeler is a standout as Mrs. Jefferson, Homeless Woman, and particularly as the “Seasons Of Love” soloist. The lady has got some pipes!
Kudos to music director Mike Walker and his sensational six-piece band (Walker, Brent Crayon, Kenny Lefort, Ben Sieke, Chris Mello, and Marc Zollinger) for sounding as good as it gets. Candice M. Clasby’s choreography is nicely conceived to fit the talents of the cast. The Rent team is completed by Ron Scarlata (artistic director), Patty Breitag (vocal director), Patty Briles (property design), and Christian LeMay (stage manager).
At affordable prices, even for those on a student budget, El Camino’s production proves a fine introduction to Rent for teens and 20somethings who’ve never had the chance to see the show on Broadway or in its National Tour. At the same time, it provides a fresh new look at the show for seasoned Rentheads of any age.
Campus Theatre, El Camino College, 16007 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance.
March 19, 2010
Photos: Alysa Brennan