When Jonathan Larson’s megahit Rent ended its twelve-year-long Broadway run in 2008, regional theaters finally got their crack at staging the now iconic tale of impoverished young artists and musicians living in New York’s Lower East Side during the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic. Sadly though, despite an (over)abundance of Southern California productions since then, few appear to have achieved the greatness that Rent deserves. This is a show that requires bona fide triple threats in all its roles, including its many ensemble tracks, and despite our SoCal talent pool, this may have proved more easily said than done.

Thus, I’m thrilled to announce that Rent’s latest local incarnation, one that’s been dubbed Rent: Downtown L.A. for its unique venue, more than meets Rent’s high demands. Simply put, Rent: Downtown L.A. is the Rent event of the year.

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 (Adam Shapiro) serves as narrator/observer, commenting on the lives of Roger (J.D. Driskill), his aspiring songwriter roommate; Mimi (Angel Stevens), the Cat Scratch Club exotic dancer whom Roger falls for; drag queen Angel (Michael Montiel) and philosophy prof Collins (Jason McGee), who fall in love; Maureen (Emily Goglia), Mark’s bisexual performance artist ex-wife; Joanne (Tiffany Gray), Maureen’s lawyer girlfriend; and Benny (Chris Sams), 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.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have seen a couple of Rents directed more innovatively than Rent: Downtown L.A. Caitlin S. Hart and Kate Sullivan’s direction is first-rate, however, and if this Rent breaks no new ground compared to, say, Cal State Fullerton’s last December, its directors know the material by heart and stage it with honesty and vitality.

Three things make Rent: Downtown L.A. the theatrical event that it is: its performers, its musicians, and its “secret” location. (In a supremely clever bit of PR, ticket buyers were told only that Rent would be staged in a “secret industrial warehouse in downtown, L.A. You will receive exact address upon ticket purchase.” How clever is supremely clever? Rent sold out its entire twelve-performance run before Opening Night!)

As love (and disease)-struck Roger, Driskill burns up the stage with rocker looks and killer pipes. Jonathan Larson look-alike Shapiro couldn’t be more right for Mark, the IAMA Theatre Company actor/producer proving himself the quintessential triple-threat. Stevens combines song and dance prowess and plenty of sexy sizzle as Mimi, besides showing off powerful dramatic chops. Goglia moves from her StageSceneLA-reviewed starring roles at USC to her first post-grad professional gig in a phenomenal star turn as Maureen, turning the bisexual temptress into a dazzling mix of scary, sassy, and sweet. Gray’s Joanne is equally memorable, the brown-haired, brown-eyed triple-threat possessing the biggest and best voice in the show (which she shows off in “Seasons Of Love”). Star-on-the-rise Montiel brings charm and pep to Angel, McGee reprises “I’ll Cover You” with tear-inducing simplicity and sincerity, and the two have great romantic chemistry. Scenie-winner Sams makes for a terrifically snarky Benny, revealing versatility and a fine voice to boot.

Rent cannot survive on lead performances alone, and here too Rent: Downtown L.A. proves a winner, each of its supporting cast members revealing top-caliber multi-talents in a variety of roles. Kudos go out to Megan Dorn-Wallenstein, Natalie Hoy, Tamika Katon-Donegal, Heather Ogilvy, Kyle Pierce, Tyler Scheef, and Jason Stamey for all-around sensational work, each one deserving a sentence of his or her own.

As for the band, they are out-and-out stupendous, led by music director Chip Colvin on keyboard and featuring Joseph Muskat on drums and percussion, Nathan York on bass, Ben Silverman on guitar 1 and Jon Lee on guitar 2.

Finally, there’s Rent: Downtown L.A.’s absolutely unique venue, an expansive industrial warehouse (the same that was used Lucid By Proxy’s Into The Woods) which places the audience smack-dab inside Roger and Mark’s abandoned loft even before the show begins, with scenic designer Sylvie Hitchcock completing the effect to perfection.

Morgan Edwards’ lighting is vibrant and varied, though occasionally not quite bright enough on faces. Nicel Guerra’s sound design, though largely successful in a highly problematic venue, could still up the volume on background vocals (as in “Will I?”). Lulu Kroner’s costumes couldn’t be better, taking the Broadway originals as their inspiration without aping them.

Sarah Maher’s choreography deserves snaps for an excitingly staged “La Vie Boheme,” though the dance moves in “Santa Fe” seemed odd, less organic choices compared to others I’ve seen.

Additional kudos go out to assistant musical director Mason Fink, assistant sound designer Martyn Tyler, assistant costume designer Jessica Lively, hair designer Jesse Martinez, make-up designer Jill Pugh, and prop designer Stacey Castillo.

Kate Sullivan is executive producer and Colin Fickes associate producer. Kristen Hammack is production stage manager and Louis Paulete assistant stage manager. Tamara Hunter is casting director and Stacey Castillo casting associate.

With all remaining performances sold out, reviews seem almost beside-the-point. Regardless, consider this one an out-and-out rave. Ticket-buyers who didn’t wait till the last moment, or even till the next-to-next-to-last moment to reserve their seats can consider themselves fortunate indeed!

Big Art Labs, 651 Clover Street, Los Angeles. Through May 28.
–Steven Stanley
May 7, 2011

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