Rent is back … in the big-stage, big-talent production the now iconic Jonathan Larson Broadway smash deserves, news which ought to send every Renthead zooming over to La Mirada to catch as sensational a regional Rent as you’ll ever see.
Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know the story of Jonathan Larson and his tale of impoverished young artists and musicians living in New York’s Lower East Side during the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic?
About how the aspiring musical theater writer/composer spent years trying to make a name for himself only to encounter setback upon setback until finally, on the eve of Rent’s first off-Broadway preview performance, he passed away suddenly, just days before his thirty-sixth birthday…
About how Rent scored rave after rave in the New York press and won Jon posthumously the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical—and countless others too numerous to mention…
About how Rent went on to become the ninth longest-running musical in Broadway history…
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 (Mark Whitten) serves as narrator and observer, commenting on the lives of Roger (Devin Archer), his aspiring songwriter roommate; Mimi (Cassie Simone), the Cat Scratch Club exotic dancer whom Roger falls for; drag queen Angel (Lawrence Cummings) and philosophy prof Collins (John Devereaux), who fall in love; Maureen (Emily Goglia), Mark’s bisexual performance artist ex-wife; Joanne (Amber Mercomes), Maureen’s lawyer girlfriend; and Benny (Cooper Howell), 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.
A half-dozen years back, it seemed that everyone around town was putting on their own production of Rent, and I saw quite a few of them, including several which made one thing abundantly clear. If you don’t have a brilliantly talented ensemble (and that includes even performers essaying the smallest roles), don’t undertake Rent.
Fortunately (and not at all surprisingly given the sky-high level of talent McCoy Rigby Entertainment regulars have come to expect), each and every one of the triple-threats igniting the La Mirada Theatre stage is more than up to the task.
And what a stage the superstar sixteen get to perform on.
Scenic designer extraordinaire Stephen Gifford gives La Mirada’s Rent a spectacular, multi-level (and I do mean multi-level) set that is both literal (we actually feel we are in Roger and Mark’s warehouse loft) and figurative enough to allow us to believe (thanks to Jonathan Infante’s vivid projections) that we are all over New York as the seasons change from winter to spring to summer to fall and then back to winter again.
This fresh new design allows director Richard Israel the freedom to do things his own inspired way. Much is made of second, third, and even fourth-floor spaces, for instance in allowing Angel to look down from way up above at one crucial moment, or in more general terms, letting multiple vignettes take place simultaneously in clearly distinct areas.
In fact, if ever there was a Rent where no matter where you look, something is happening to someone, someone’s life is being lived, it is Israel’s Rent.
More significantly, director Israel recognizes that Rent is at its heart a story of community, of (to paraphrase Barbra), people needing people, and the bonds that his thrilling, mostly quite young cast have formed in real life over the rehearsal process are palpable as they bring Larson’s characters to authentic life.
Archer (making it three big ones in a row after MTW’s Les Miz and 3-D’s Tarzan) combines rock star pipes and sex appeal as Roger; Simone burns up the stage with her touch-chick-with-a-tender heart Mimi; and Whitten (so memorable in La Mirada’s Floyd Collins) makes for a terrifically nerdy, conflicted, caring Mark.
Cummings’ fabulously fierce Angel is the finest of the ten Angels I’ve seen (I felt I was seeing the role reinvented) and no Angel could ask for a dreamier Collins than Devereaux, the twosome sharing palpable stage chemistry, Devereaux showing off glorious vocals in his deeply felt “I’ll Cover You” reprise, and the twosome revealing powerful acting chops as Angel’s illness takes its devastating toll as I’ve never seen it staged and performed before.
Goglia reprises her scene-stealingly quirkly star turn as Maureen from Rent Downtown 2011, making “Over The Moon” as show-stopping a performance piece as it’s ever been, and Mercomes (the “Seasons Of Love” soloist in Rent’s L.A. regional premiere in 2009) makes for a dynamic, deeply-felt Joanne. (Their “Take Me Or Leave Me” and Mercomes’s “Tango Maureen” opposite Whitten both bring down the house.)
Completing the cast of principals, Howell displays considerable star quality as Rent villain Benny while letting us see the little bit of heart that beats beneath the surface.
Rent cannot survive on lead performances alone, and here too La Mirada’s Rent proves a winner, each of its supporting cast members revealing top-caliber multi-talents in a variety of roles. Kudos go out to Chassey Bennett, Daniel Dawson, Chanel Edwards-Frederick, Aaron Gordon, Craig Michael Lucas, Luke Monday, John Pinto, Jr., and Alyssa Simmons for all-around stupendous work.
Watch each of these performers when they’re not center stage and you’ll see total commitment to the parts they are playing on the sidelines, in addition to their gorgeous voices and remarkable dance skills. (Special vocal kudos go to Simmons’ sensational “Seasons Of Love” solo—with some verses added gorgeously by Pinto—and to Monday’s lovely solo turn in “Will I Lose My Dignity?”)
Southland choreographic treasure Dana Solimando has approached Rent from the ground up, giving us fresh new interpretations of the title song and “La Vie Boheme” in addition to the aforementioned “Tango Maureen” and “Take Me Or Leave Me.”
Director Israel opts to move the orchestra down to the pit, the better to give the cast free use of Gifford’s set, and what a Broadway caliber band this is under the expert musical direction of conductor John Glaudini.
Steven Young’s spectacular lighting design makes this Rent a nonstop visual stunner, while Josh Bessom’s sound design mixes vocals and instrumentals so expertly that we scarcely miss a syllable of Larson’s lyrics. Thomas G. Marquez’s costumes pay tribute to the Broadway originals associated with Mark, Mimi, Angel, and the rest, while remaining very much his own creations, and the same can be said about Katie McCoy’s hair, make-up, and wig designs. (Angel’s drag outfits and hair are particular delights.) Terry Hanrahan’s multitude of carefully chosen props complete Rent’s production design to perfection.
Casting is by Julia Flores. Donna Parsons is production stage manager.
For the 20&30somethings who make up the La Mirada cast, Rent was most likely the musical they grew up with in their pre-teen/teen years, and the love they so clearly feel for Jonathan Larson’s masterpiece radiates from the stage from start to finish.
Whatever your own age and connection to Rent, I’m guessing you’ll be reflecting back to them that very same love.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
Photos: Jason Niedle