Rent at Ivoryton

By Geary Danihy

There’s something strange going on out at Ivoryton Playhouse. No, it’s not that the venerable establishment is boarding Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” although the choice is a bit daring for Ivoryton. Rather, it’s that there are actually two shows up there on the stage: with the first act often unintelligible with regards to relationships and exactly what is going on, and the second act a clear, engaging exploration of relationships in extremis.

“Rent” is essentially a sung-through musical, which means there is minimum dialogue. Hence, you absolutely need to hear what is being sung by the various characters to understand what is going on (unless you’ve Googled the musical and are prepared). This seems to be the major problem in the first act -- the characters are singing and interacting but, well, you often really can’t understand what they are saying, or singing. Obviously, a big problem, and it’s not one that just one person experienced.

“Rent” is, admittedly, a “loud” musical, but director Jacqueline Hubbard has done a lot to tone down the overall impact -- the six-member orchestra is hidden below the stage rather than featured upper stage, as is often the case in productions of this musical (normally with stacks of amps and speakers to blow you out of your seats). Still, there’s a problem, mainly that a lot of the lyrics seem to mesh together into a “mush” of sound. Perhaps it has to do with Tate Burmeister’s sound design, or maybe everything should just be slowed down a beat or two to allow for the sung “dialogue” to register -- perhaps this will happen once the production settles in.

And then, magically, the second act begins and the verbal “fog” disappears and everything becomes crystal clear and the pathos inherent in the show comes to the fore. Given the aforementioned challenges, there are a lot of fine performances up there on the stage as the cast presents an updated version of Puccini’s La Boheme, now set on the Lower East Side of Manhattan as the AIDs virus rears its ugly head.

Of special note is Alyssa Gomez’s Mimi, the doomed courtesan (if that’s what she is) who asks Roger (Johnny Newcomb) if he will light her candle as she attempts to make a human connection. Also prominent is Stephanie Genito as Maureen (her performance exudes sensuality), the lady who is sung about by her former lover, Mark (Tim Russell), and current lover, Joanne (Maritza Bostic) in “Tango: Maureen.”

One doesn’t know how long the cast and crew had for technical rehearsals, but there are some lighting problems -- when the cast is arranged across the front of the stage (especially in the signature “Seasons of Love” number), those positioned extreme stage right and left are almost in the dark (perhaps they are meant to be), and often the follow spots seem to be chasing the actors rather than anticipating their movements. It’s also not obvious if some of the actors are missing their marks or the specials (instruments meant to illuminate a specific character) are not precisely positioned.

As mentioned, the second act magically comes alive. Unfortunately, on opening night, technology failed to do its job. Some in the audience might have been a bit confused as to why projections were running extreme stage right while the entire cast was gathered stage center for the moving finale. Bad directing choice? No, the computer froze and there was no way to reboot it unless the show was stopped, so the projections kept on running. Thus are the vagaries and vicissitudes of live theater.

Staging Rent is a roll of the dice for Ivoryton, given the theater’s demographics and location. In speaking with Hubbard prior to the opening night performance (after several previews), she said that she has received several e-mail protests, including one from a minister who, she said, hadn’t even seen the show. Thus, kudos to Ivoryton and Hubbard for even considering the musical, and if some first-act problems can be ironed out, the evening will be the engaging, heartfelt experience it is supposed to be.

Rent runs through August 28. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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