note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
In the past three years, I’ve seen four productions of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, “Rent,” and each company has created its own focus and dimension.
Larson’s resounding music, lyrics and play about struggling young artists and musicians in New York City’s Lower East Side, battling homelessness, drug addiction, AIDS, and poverty in 1989, evoke every emotion - love, sadness, loss, excitement. He painted a strong parallel to Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme,” the story of struggling artists and writers in Paris. Even more depressing is Larson died at age 35 of an aortic aneurysm a day before “Rent’s” off-Broadway debut. The multi-award winning 1996 hit show was the eighth longest-running show on Broadway.
Where other productions emphasize the group’s poverty and struggle to pursue their individual artistic, creative careers in the cold harsh world, New Repertory Theater realistically hones in on the seamy drug-and-sex undercurrent that plagues their lives during the 1980‘s AIDS epidemic.
Director Benjamin Evett, (who is a phenomenal actor), writes, “....[Larson] created extraordinary characters that young people can really relate to, then and now. It’s their journey, from naive self-absorption to an appreciation of the real value of life and family, where I want to focus our energy. I want to create a world that is rough, exciting, chaotic and inspirational for the characters living in it,and hopefully for the audience, too.”
In some ways, Evett underplays the hardships of Larson’s characters struggling in the cold, harsh, dog-eat-dog, material, money-grasping, greedy streets of Manhattan 22 years ago. In other ways, he’s too graphic.
Kelli Edwards’ choreography is offensive at times, going overboard depicting sex orgies and couples having sex, horrifying parents attending with pre-teenagers and older theatergoers. And many of us questioned whether it was necessary to stage drag queen, Angel Schunard’s death and ascension into the spiritual world with full frontal nudity. Lanky Nick Sulfaro, who sensitively portrays the generous, loving cross-dresser, earlier doffs his wig, revealing his boyish haircut underneath, before he dons a hospital johnny. If Evett’s purpose was to depict Angel’s death metaphorically during post-life ascension, it was more shocking than sad.
Also jarring is all-American star Aimee Doherty, who attempts to be comical as activist Maureen, leading the charge against corporate development in the group’s rundown Manhattan neighborhood. In her musical tirade, “Over the Moon,” her crude gestures, along with her overall performance, are hyperbolic.
Unfortunately, Danny Bryck as former friend-turned-corporate rat, Benjamin, is too nice. He’s an anemic, apologetic villain, who dissipates the need for the group’s protest against his plans to evict them and build a cyber studio complex there.
The four-piece orchestra located on the left side of the stage, led by keyboardist Todd C. Gordon, effectively overruled some performers’ inability to stay on key. Although Kathryn Kawecki’s minimalist set is typical of “Rent” productions, with its metal-framed, multi-level structure, Frances Nelson McSherry’s costumes are too yuppie. Even the street people, thieves and beggars are clean-cut, wearing leather coats and jackets. However, a large background scrim depicting videos during key scenes, especially Angel’s funeral, adds dramatic clout.
Overall, the cast delivers solid, exuberant performances. John Ambrosino as narrator-videographer Mark Cohen, is even-tempered, his voice pleasant, during duets with co-star Robert St. Laurence, portraying gaunt, HIV positive roommate, Roger, who’s struggling to write one big song before he dies. Roger becomes sidetracked by falling in love with drug-addicted, HIV positive, doe-eyed dancer Mimi, (Eve Kagan). Her movements are feline, flirtatious, frenetic. Saying she’s 19, she evokes a desperation, attempting to live life in high gear.
Effectively rounding out the cast are Robyn Long as Maureen’s “Ivy League” lover, Joanne, Maurice E. Parent as Angel’s vulnerable, computer whiz lover, Tom Collins, and the ensemble.
BOX INFO: Two-act award-winning rock opera written by Jonathan Larson, appearing at New Repertory Theatre in the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown, through Sept. 25. Performances are Wednesday, Sept. 14. Thursday, Sept. 15, 22, at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. with talkbacks; Saturday, Sept. 17, at 3,8 p.m.; Tickets are $28-$63, with senior, student discounts and student rush tickets offered. For more information, call 617-923-8487 or visit www.newrep.org.