Ivoryton’s “Rent”: Needs More Electricity to Match its Courage

By Brooks Appelbaum

Early in the first act of “Rent,” Mimi (Alyssa V. Gomez) meets Roger (Johnny Newcomb) and tries to seduce him with the famous ballad, “Light My Candle.” Gomez and Newcomb sing well and are affecting together; however, the audience might be forgiven for wishing that Mimi held a candelabra, rather than a candle, and that the chemistry between the two was more, well, electric. Throughout the first act, in particular, the stage is disturbingly dark, and not theatrically so, and the sound is muffled. Under the direction of Jacqueline Hubbard, Ivoryton’s Artistic Director, the cast works gamely, but only in Act Two does this production begin to ignite.

Written by the Jonathan Larson, based loosely on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” and a phenomenon when it first hit Broadway in 1996, “Rent” won numerous Tony awards and that year’s Pulitzer Prize. As the 1976 “A Chorus Line” (also a Pulitzer Prize winner) shone a light on the usually invisible back-up dancers for a star-driven Broadway show, “Rent” illuminated a group of young people whom the rest of society was trying to forget: those fighting HIV/AIDS; those addicts having chosen to eke out a living (or, in their case, a dying) by stripping or hustling; and those artists who scorned money or careers in favor of pursuing their unconventional projects.

“Rent” also explores and celebrates every kind of love, exemplified by the famous song, “Seasons of Love.” In addition to the straight lovers, Mimi and Roger, the show’s plots include the love/hate lesbian relationship between Maureen (Stephanie Genito) and Joanne (Martiza Bostic); the tender passion between Tom Collins (Patrick Clanton) and the trans woman Angel (Jonny Cortes); and the platonic affinity between roommates Roger and Mark (Tim Russell).

The cast is large and the story is sprawling; all the more reason to have perfect lighting (since it’s difficult to hear when you can’t see) and crystalline sound. For whatever reason, both the lighting (Marcus Abbott) and the sound (Tate R. Burmeister) do more to obscure the action than to clarify it. Martin Scott Marchitto’s set is appropriately gritty, though a configuration of three tables pushed into a T-shape at stage center is distracting. Were those tables separated and set at different angles on the stage, the actor/dancers would have more destinations with which to underline their actions, which nearly always helps develop character and keep a story clear.

In clarity, director Hubbard and choreographer Todd Underwood seem to have unconsciously created two separate shows, since the first act is so difficult to follow, and the second act so beautifully and sharply focused. In retrospect a pattern becomes clear: with two people onstage (or, as in the moving “Happy New Year,” three separate couples with three stories to tell), the action, the stakes, and the relationships are clear and compelling. In the larger numbers, for the most part, the energy dissipates.

Some actors stand out no matter what. Patrick Clanton, as the loving and generous Collins, gives a loving and generous performance. As his lover, Angel, Jonny Cortes is by turns sweet, sassy, funny, and the fragile heartbeat of the show. Anyone playing this character must make her at once earthy and not of this world, and Cortes is believable and touching at every moment. Johnny Newcomb beautifully conveys Roger’s many facets and his torment; we root for him from beginning to end. Tim Russell’s Mark is also moving, but one wishes that Hubbard had helped him find more of the character’s energy, as narrator; his sense of confusion once he’s torn (or “rent”) between the temptations of the commercial world and his own integrity; and his humor.

The orchestra, guided by Music Director Michael Morris, does a fine job of creating excitement without overwhelming the actors’ voices or the small theater itself, and Todd Underwood’s choreography, while somewhat predictable, mostly serves the script.

While this “Rent” is not perfect, Jacqueline Hubbard is to be commended for staging the show at all, given that her audiences tend to prefer lighter fare. Wisely, she is beckoning to a younger demographic, and her gambit is paying off: the first three performances were sold out. One hopes that the technical issues will resolve, and that this ensemble of ensemble pieces will find its fire in the coming weeks.

Special to the Shoreline Times


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