Cal State Fullerton’s exceptional production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent makes it amply clear why the university’s Musical Theater program is one of the country’s most highly recommended. Performed by a uniformly outstanding cast of future stars and directed with supreme imagination and style by Kari Hayter, this is a Rent that deserves to be seen by Rent aficionados and newbies alike. For the latter, it will prove a terrific introduction to the groundbreaking rock opera which became an honest-to-goodness contemporary classic during its twelve-year New York run. For the former, it will provide proof positive that a director with a vision and a cast of Broadway-bound triple-threats can take a fourteen-year-old show and make it a fresh new theatrical experience worthy of audience cheers from start to finish.

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 (Daniel Wargo) serves as narrator/observer, commenting on the lives of Roger (Neil J. Starkenberg), his aspiring songwriter roommate; Mimi (Abby Hankins), the Cat Scratch Club exotic dancer whom Roger falls for; drag queen Angel (Nico Ramirez) and philosophy prof Collins (Calvin Seabrooks), who fall in love; Maureen (Rose Ouellette), Mark’s bisexual performance artist ex-wife; Joanne (Molly Stillens), Maureen’s lawyer girlfriend; and Benny (Bradley Carnation), Mark and Roger’s ex-roommate and current nemesis. The cast is multiracial and multicultural (though somewhat less so than usual at CSUF). 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.

Hayter, a CSUF Theater grad with ample directorial experience who is currently pursuing her MFA degree in Directing, takes inspiration from the Broadway original (is there any musical theater major who hasn’t seen Rent at least once on Broadway or on tour?) but again and again makes this production very much her own. She also insures that nothing has been dumbed down or expurgated for this university production, giving us the real Rent, with all its rough language and raw themes.

Brad Shelton’s scenic design, while employing the same scaffolding/raised platform motif as Paul Clay’s Broadway original, is distinctive enough to allow Hayter to stage scenes in ways and locations they haven’t been done before. Bradley Lock’s costumes too give Rent’s characters their own new looks, though the student designer wisely retains Angel’s signature Santa Claus mini-dress and several other iconic designs.

Several moments stand out in particular in the CSUF production, one which benefits enormously from faculty choreographer William F. Lett’s equally fresh vision. “Will I?” gains even greater power in a moving tableau which has each lead and ensemble character enacting his or her own personal story at the height of the AIDS epidemic. “Santa Fe” becomes a full-fledged production number, with ensemble dancers fully integrated into Collins, Angel, and Mark’s vocal performances, and the three lead singers executing dance-like movements while vocalizing. Most striking of all is Hayter and Lett’s staging of “Contact,” the orgiastic sequence which precedes the death of one character. Rather than softening or even excising the number as some productions have done, the director and choreographer place the focus on a breathtaking aerialist performance by Ramirez above the dimly lit bacchanalia below, climaxing in a Pietà-like moment that is simply devastating. This sequence alone makes CSUF’s Rent worth seeing.

Lett’s staging of the title song, “Tango Maureen,” “La Vie Boheme,” and “Take Me Or Leave Me” have the feel of Marlies Yearby’s original Broadway choreography yet are very much Lett’s own creation, with a special tip of the hat to Mimi’s sizzling pole dancing in “Out Tonight.”

The CSUF undergrad cast may at first glance seem a tad young for their roles, but in fact they are probably closer in age to Larson’s young bohemians that many of the show’s Broadway stars were. As for their performances on the Little Theatre stage, many of these gifted triple-threats could easily give their Broadway counterparts a run for their money.

The real-life friendship between Wargo and Starkenberg translates to palpable onstage chemistry between Mark and Roger, Wargo giving the would-be filmmaker a goofy charm while Starkenberg gives the tormented would-be songwriter the look of a Prom King crossed over to the wild side. Both are absolutely terrific vocalists, “What You Own” and other Mark-Roger duets sung with particular power and passion.

As same-sex lovers Angel and Collins, Ramirez and Seabrooks have a romantic chemistry rarely seen since Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Jesse L. Martin brought them to life on Broadway and in Rent’s film adaptation. The brilliant Ramirez gives Angel a saucy sexiness that melds perfectly with Seabrooks’ sultry sensuality, sparks lighting the stage during Angel’s electric “Today For You” and the duo’s passionate “I’ll Cover You.” As for the song’s Act Two reprise, the combination of Seabrooks’ stirring vocal performance and Hayter’s striking staging is likely to send shivers down audience members’ backs as tears stream down their cheeks.

Ouellette gives Maureen a delicious dash of dumb blondeness, and performs “Over The Moon” with such dazzling originality that even the most devoted Rentheads may feel they’re seeing and hearing it for the first time. Silliens does very good work opposite Ouellette as diehard lesbian Joanne, and possesses some powerful pipes to boot. Hankins’ “Out Tonight” is a sizzler too, and her performance of “Without You” opposite Starkenberg is a touching one. Carnation has just the right suave snootiness to make the role of Benny entirely his own, and like his fellow leads, is a darned fine singer.

As for the supporting players, each shines as part of the song-dance ensemble and in numerous cameo roles as well. Chelsea Baldree does a delectably quirky take on self-centered tabloid producer Alexi Darling. Analise Castellanos and Maxwel Corpuz soar vocally as the “Seasons Of Love” soloists. Averi Jenkins makes for a gutsy Homeless Woman. Timothy Fitzsimmons as the harried waiter in the “La Vie Boheme” sequence, Micaela Martinez as Mark’s mother, Chris Murakami as Gordon from the AIDS support group, and Göran Norquist as the Drug Dealer complete the ensemble to perfection.

Faculty musical director Mitchell Hanlon gets the cast harmonizing faultlessly, and conducts the flawless upstage band on keyboard. Peter Herz (keyboard), Jason Rosenquist (drums), John Urban (bass), and Jeff Askew and Ed Kusby (guitar) complete the band. Other Rents have had more spectacular lighting designs, but AmyAnne Duncan’s does the trick very nicely indeed. Marc Martinez also gets thumbs up for his hair and makeup design.

There have been plenty of Rents since production rights were released to regional, community, and school theater companies a couple years back. My guess is that few have hit the jackpot the way Cal State Fullerton’s does. With its gifted cast and director performing at the peak of their youthful talents, this is one Rent that neither Renthead nor rookie will want to miss.

Little Theatre, California State University, Fullerton. Through December 12.

–Steven Stanley
December 2, 2010
Photos: Edwin Lockwood

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