After more than a dozen years’ wait for the rights to produce Jonathan Larson’s Rent, it’s no wonder that droves of regional, university, and community theaters have been jumping at the chance to stage the smash Broadway musical. Rent’s grungy look back at the young denizens of an AIDS-riddled late-‘80s New York City doesn’t require fancy sets or costumes and its edgy themes and youthful cast of characters give it undeniable appeal to up-and-coming performers, making it seem, at least on the surface, not all that tough a show to put on.

Looks can be deceiving.

A successful Rent production requires at least five significant elements to be present: a) eight charismatic triple threats to give life to its lead characters; b) an equal number of talented, charismatic triple threats to lend support; c) a gifted director and choreographer; d) a rock club-ready band (and a sound system to mix vocals and instrumentals to premium effect); and e) scenic, lighting, and costume designs to complete the total picture.

The La Habra Depot Theatre is the latest to undertake the challenges of Rent, and to its great credit, this longtime Southern California community theater gets about 70% of the above quite right indeed.

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 (Thomas Roy) serves as narrator/observer, commenting on the lives of Roger (J.D. Driskill), his aspiring songwriter roommate; Mimi (Katy Harvey), the Cat Scratch Club exotic dancer whom Roger falls for; drag queen Angel (Marcus S. Daniel) and philosophy prof Collins (Jovani McCleary), who fall in love; Maureen (Brittany Rose Hammond), Mark’s bisexual performance artist ex-wife; Joanne (Regan Carrington), Maureen’s lawyer girlfriend; and Benny (Eric Ronquillo), 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.

Rent at The Depot is the inspiration of the aforementioned Daniel, who not only plays Angel but directs and choreographs—and in all of the above, the quintuple threat scores a bulls-eye.

Daniel uses the Depot stage and center aisle with imagination and flair. His staging of “Will I?” is one of the most powerful ever, a despairing AIDS patient receiving tearful comfort forming the centerpiece of Roger’s dramatically lit nightmare. Angel’s death scene has rarely been staged more movingly, and when Angel’s angel kisses Collins softly on the neck as his bereaved lover reprises “I’ll Cover You” at his memorial, the effect is devastating.

An inventive Daniel choreographs “Tango Maureen” as a pas de trois and not de deux, introducing Maureen herself into the seductive mix to dramatic effect. Mimi’s pole-dance to “Out Tonight” takes us inside the Clit Club, where a pair of sexy cuties back her up with sensuous moves. “Santa Fe” has its dancers scatter desert sand as they sway in the New Mexico breeze.

Finally, as actor, Daniel virtually reinvents the role of Angel, 6’4” and the personification of fabulous, whether in skin-tight, androgynous boywear, or his/her long blonde locks cascading down a slender, very feminine back. Not surprisingly, with Daniel drum-beating every surface he can find, “Today 4 U” proves the very definition of showstopper. Daniel The Performer takes risk after risk, and the risks pay off.

The septet who surround Daniel’s Angel are precisely the talented, charismatic bunch needed to fulfill requirement number one. Driskill’s runway-ready looks and rockstar voice make him a sensational Roger, a role he’s playing for the fifth time here. Roy makes for a thoughtful, sensitive Mark, with pipes to match. Harvey is a wrecking ball of fire as Mimi, pulsating with life while ravaged by drugs. Statuesque Carrington plays Joanne with an extra dash of humor that makes the part very much her own. Hammond’s “Over The Moon” is as cute and laugh-out-loud funny an interpretation of Maureen’s signature number as I’ve seen. Ronquillo is darned sexy as Benny besides giving the character the requisite sleaze factor. Finally, McCleary remakes Collins in his own distinctive image, bringing an irresistibly goofy charm to the role and operatic pipes boot. There’s chemistry between all the onstage couples, but Daniels and McCleary never leave a second of doubt that between Angel and Collins it’s a case of mutual adoration.

Design-wise, this Rent works mostly quite well indeed. Bri Dally’s graffiti-scrawled set design does the job within a limited budget, despite a tad more clutter than necessary given limited stage space. Terri Daniels’ costumes are just right for each character, fitting the image we have of each from the Broadway original without copying. Lighting design is uncredited, but highly effective, particularly in its use of color.

Musical director Kristina Keener Ivy gets the large cast harmonizing to powerful effect, and the onstage band (Mark Davidson, Jordan Hayes, Ivy, Sandro Razciel, and Benjamin Sagan) provide as fine a backup as you’ll hear in any so-called “professional” production. Unfortunately, opening night mike problems detracted from several of the cast’s vocal performances, and imperfect sound mixing had instrumentals overpowering voices on too many occasions and to the production’s detriment.

Where this Rent falls short of Daniel’s goals, and the excellence it is capable of achieving, is in its supporting ensemble. Though vocally strong, and clearly committed to giving their all to the project, they are not the kind of in-shape singer-dancer-actors we’ve seen on Broadway, on tour, and in the finest of regional productions. That being said, Lina Alfinito, Jamie Baer, Peter Bueras, Andrew Brian Cristin, Kehaulani Fierro, Megan Frances, Michael Gallardo, Nora Kennedy, Ashlee Martinez, Keith Taylor, Elder Timbol, and Tiffany Valdez deserve A+ for enthusiasm and commitment, and Kennedy’s power pipes make her “Seasons Of Love” solo a powerful one.

Rent is produced by Ivy. Melissa Dean is stage manager, Matthew Washburn technical director, and Kaitlyn Tice house manager.

If Rent at La Habra Depot isn’t all that it could be, it nonetheless provides a talent showcase for the uniquely gifted Daniel and his seven costars, each of whose work deserves to be seen and applauded.

La Habra Depot Theatre, 311 S. Euclid Street, La Habra.

–Steven Stanley
September 1, 2011

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