note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
There’s a new theatrical group in town, bursting with verve and youthful intensity. Spinning its own tribal interpretation of Jonathan Larson’s award-winning musical, “Rent,” Dream Out Loud Productions presented a provocative, gut-wrenching version to a sold-out crowd last week at Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theater in the South End.
Artistic Director-Director David Bloom (who helped design the set with Stephen Vona and Rob Smith) and his vibrant cast of 15 generated perpetual energy, along with Musical Director Joshua Finstein on keyboard and four musicians nestled in plain view in a back corner. Bloom said he wanted to take the play back to its roots, the way he envisions Larson intended. He uses the small theater’s aisles to ensure the cast embraces the audience throughout the 2-1/2 hour play.
As with large productions, the graffiti-spattered set, simple staging, and choreographer Beth Stafford Laird’s directing the cast to dance on tables and chairs, spotlights Larson’s characters. Their young lives as starving artists, performers and musicians in 1980’s New York City are overcast with poverty, drugs, and a rampant, incurable AIDs epidemic.
Sadly, Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, died at age 35 of an aortic aneurysm the day before “Rent’s” off-Broadway debut. While Larson was a trend-setter in musical theater, setting the stage for many new-style performers and shows, he only lived to see the final dress rehearsal. He never knew his play skyrocketed to record-breaking fame. The popular, multi-award winning show became the eighth longest-running show on Broadway, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama; Tony Awards; Drama Desk Awards; the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical; the 1996 Drama League Award for Best Musical; the 1996 Theatre World Awards; and the 1996 Obie Awards.
Some theatergoers are unaware Larson based his play on Puccini’s timeless opera, “La Boheme,” the story of struggling artists and writers in “gay Paree”. One song, “La Vie Boheme,” reflects that parallel. Although Puccini’s arias are divine, so are Larson’s moving pop operatic pieces, defining his tragic characters: beloved, doomed drag queen, Angel Schunard, (Matt Romero), who teaches and preaches love to all, but especially loves scientific, scholarly Tom Collins (Michael Levesque); main character Roger Davis, (Ryan Vona), bereaved, HIV positive singer-guitarist, whose girlfriend April died of AIDs. He’s trying to write his one big song before he dies, but is sidetracked by falling in love with drug-addicted, HIV positive dancer Mimi (Kelly McIntyre). Roger’s roommate, narrator-videographer Mark Cohen (co-star Matthew Phillipps) won’t trade his artistic integrity for a big, juicy contract with a tabloid company, even though they can’t pay last year’s rent in an abandoned industrial space and are facing eviction from their former roommate-now-yuppie, married owner, Benjamin, (Ahmad Maksoud). Bloom and Co. empower Maureen, (Ashley Korolewski), Mark’s former activist girlfriend-turned-lesbian, who’s relationship with her “Ivy League lover,” Joanne (Hayley Travers) is quixotic. Maureen incites crowds to riot against Benjamin and developers in “Over the Moon,”while mooning the audience, and confronts Joanne in a rousing duet, “Take Me or Leave Me”.
Every number is gripping, from McIntyre’s unflinching solo, “Out Tonight,” to ensemble numbers and reprises, including “Light My Candle,” “I Should Tell You,” “Christmas Bells,” and parents’ shrill phone calls from the aisles, entitled, “Voice Mail #1,2,3 and 4”.