Be Sure to Save some Money to Pay for RENT this month at Midvale Main Street Theatre

I had the privilege of attending Saturday night’s production of Rent at the Midvale Main Street Theatre.  I had never been to this theatre or a production of Rent in Utah before, so I was excited for the opportunity.  Rent is a very popular production nationally, but is rarely performed in Utah, due to the subject matter and controversial issues that it addresses.  However, Rent in a lot of ways is even more relevant to Utah audiences in light of recent political events and controversies involving LDS views on homosexuality, proposition 8, etc. The name Rent is an appropriate title for the piece—not only is it tender for living in a space (which is a central conflict to the plot, but it also means “torn apart”).

I was first introduced to Rent in high school when my school’s show choir did a Broadway themed review that contained a medley from Rent, a new rock musical, based on the opera La boheme.  The music was incredible and became a highlight of the show. I then had the opportunity to see a Broadway touring company of the production, much to my parent’s concern due to the subject matter, and have since seen two more touring companies of the production.

For those unfamiliar with Rent, The story takes place in the East Village, the artsy avant-garde neighborhood of Manhattan, in the 90’s and spans about a year’s time around eight main characters:  Mark Cohen (the narrator of the production and struggling film maker), Roger (a struggling musician that is HIV-positive), Mimi (Roger’s girlfriend who is also HIV-positive and is a stripper at a nearby club), Collins (a gay teacher and computer genius in a relationship with Angel), Angel (a drag queen and street percussionist who is in a relationship with Collins), Joanne (a civil rights attorney in a relationship with Maureen), Maureen (Mark’s free spirited ex-girlfriend now in a relationship with Joanne), and Benny (the landlord of the apartments where the characters live and has a love interest in Mimi).   Sounds heavy?  And in a way, the subject matter deals with some difficult topics such as aids, drugs, poverty, homosexuality, etc.  However, as the production progresses, these characters become easily relatable to and are not defined by their lifestyles or disease.  The resounding theme throughout Rent is that of love and acceptance of others—to love without judgment and to live each day for today.  This message is punctuated over and over throughout the show with lyrics such as “No day but today” or “The opposite of war isn’t peace, its creation;” and in such songs as “Take me for What I am” and “Seasons of Love”. It has won numerous rewards, including the Tony Award for Best Musical, the Pulitzer Prize for drama (one of only 8 musicals to ever receive this award) and is the 9th longest running show in Broadway’s history (with a 12 year run and 5,124 performances).  Rent has drawn a unique following of supporters that deviate greatly from the standard theatre community.  This was no different in Utah as last night’s audience was filled with primarily younger to middle-aged couples and groups.  No families and only one elderly lady in the whole audience.  This audience brought a different energy than a normal Utah audience would bring.

Now all that being said, the director (Tammy Ross) did a fantastic job of creating an ensemble of actors that worked together and truly conveyed the message of love and acceptance throughout the production.  The set was very creative and added much to the ambiance and setting.  The costumes and choice of casting (especially in the ensemble) added a unique blend of individuality and accented this theme very nicely.  I was impressed with her use of space and levels.  I liked the pictures that she created by having the actors onstage throughout the show in various poses, rather than offstage, and how this created a sort of montage that contributed to the mood and setting of each scene.

My biggest complaint about the production was the technical aspects.  Microphones were going in and out.  The band that was onstage with the actors was distracting and often overpowered the actors.  I liked the concept of having them on stage and at times they even interacted with the actors, but they were too overpowering for this space.  I really wanted to move them to the back of the stage so that I wouldn’t lose so many of the actors’ lines and vocals.

The show starts off with Mark Cohen (Michael Howell), the narrator, who sets the premise of the story as he is working on a film documentary about the various characters we meet.  In a way, this is Mark’s story, which he completes by the end of the production and the audience actually gets to see part of this documentary on stage (this is a nice surprise to watch for!).  The show begins with the high energy number “Rent” with the entire ensemble onstage singing “We’re not going to pay rent!,” accompanied by keyboards and electric guitars.  I instantly knew that I would enjoy this production after this opening number.  I was very impressed with Howell’s performance in this number and throughout the show. He has excellent vocals to carry the part and was the glue that really held the production together.  His acting, relationship with the other characters, and his personal journey throughout the piece were spot on.

As this is a show about relationships, love and acceptance, many of the songs and much of the dialogue center on these characters’ individual relationships and struggles.  The two couples that were very successful in creating powerful and deeply layered relationships were Joanne/Maureen and Collins/Angel.  Collins (Aleksndr Arteaga) was my favorite actor in the show.  His powerful voice and strong commitment to his character made him captivating to watch in every scene.  His relationship with Angel (Frank Castro) was sincere and they had great chemistry between each other.  One of the highlights and most touching moments of the show was the “I’ll Cover You” reprise led by Collins as he sings with great conviction and emotional connection at Angel’s funeral.  I was truly convinced and moved by his longing for his lover and passion he exuberated while leading the cast in this number.  He was the one character that had such powerful vocals that he was able to hold his own successfully against the band.

Likewise, Frank Castro was very successful in the role of Angel.  Providing great scenes with Collins and a real command of the stage.  I would have liked to have seen in the number “Today for Me, Tomorrow for You”, even greater commitment to the movement.  The choreography worked, but I feel that Angel could have punctuated the movement stronger and shown greater commitment to the choreography.  I felt he was holding back a bit.  This caused me to want more from him.  I warmed up to him as the show progressed.  But this is Angel’s first big entrance and I wanted to see a showstopper, which I am confident that Castro is very capable of pulling off.

The next couple, Joanne (Carolyn Crow) and Maureen (Shawnee K. Johnson), was fantastic.  Joanne’s first number “Tango: Maureen” with Mark was very successful.  Both she and Mark played well off each other and made great choices with a lot of variety.  They both revealed a lot about their characters in this number.  What I really enjoyed about Joanne is how well she worked from beat to beat.  Her objectives were clear and I could see her make discoveries in the moment with her character that really took me on the journey with her.  In “Tango: Maureen”, she made some real discoveries about her feelings about Maureen and by the end of the number she had changed.  In good musical theatre productions, each song should tell a story, be a new journey for the character, and reveal something new about the character that progresses the story line.  Each actor should ask himself “what did I discover during this number?” And “what new information was revealed to the audience as a result of this number?”  For me, that is the test on whether or not the number was successful.  Joanne and Mark pulled this off without a hitch.

Maureen is referred to throughout Act I, but it isn’t until near the end of the act that we see her for the first time.  And an entrance she does make, with the “Over the Moon” monologue presented as a sort of stump speech as part of a protest, complete with audience participation and lots of “mooing.”   And Johnson successfully delivers this with much gusto!  Johnson and Crow later perform the duet “Take Me for What I Am” which is another highlight of the production.  Vocally they are well matched and connected.  They take us on a journey, packed with lots of discoveries about their relationship that ends in their breakup by the end of the number.

Roger (Daniel Silva) was the weak link in the production.  He had the right look for the part, but vocally he was really straining to reach the high tenor notes that Roger has throughout the production.   As he strained, I cringed as the night went on and I was sincerely concerned for his vocal cords.  This strain often caused his notes to be off pitch and produce a scratchy sound as he was trying to force or muscle his way up to them.  But that aside, what bothered me the most about Roger is his lack of connection to the other characters, especially Mimi.  I felt that he wasn’t really working through his partners with his lines.  He was emulating lots of emotion, but he was too in his head, and his emotion seemed contrived or that he was playing a state of being rather than making real choices and working through his scene partners.  This pulled me out of the moment time and time again.  He would often revert back to awkward physicality delivered straight out to the audience, with a scrunched forehead and strained vocals to “show emotion” rather than allowing the emotion and discovery to happen organically in the moment as a reaction to other characters, especially towards his lover in the production, Mimi.

Mimi (Ashlee Brererton) had plenty of sass and sexuality, matched with strong vocals to pull off a convincing role.  She was giving much, though she didn’t get to shine as strongly because she wasn’t getting enough in return from Roger.  This lack of connection made their relationship kind of flat.  We needed greater chemistry between them.  Her number “Light My Candle” was especially good and packed full of discoveries and a nice variety of tactics.   As was her number “Without You”.  She was very connected in this number and I particularly liked the staging and how it represented the individual characters’ internal struggles and provided a nice variety of emotions, revealing much to the audience.  Her number “Out Tonight” was vocally strong but the choreography was quite weak.  This is her big number and it needed to go much further.  The movement was too safe and too reserved for how much vocal energy was being exuberated.  Mimi is putting on a show (literally) in her attempt to seduce Roger.  This number and the use of her body is key in its execution—I mean she is a stripper at a nightclub and this is the feel that this number needed.  I don’t know if her “customers” would have stuck around for this number.  But on the whole, she played an excellent Mimi.

Benny (Sterling Young) was the other character that didn’t work for me.  I often questioned his objectives and purpose on stage.  I did not understand his relationship with Mimi.  What did he see in her?  What was driving him to be in love with her?  What motivated his choices?  And how and why did he change from beginning to end? This lack of clarity and these unanswered questions made him very confusing and he didn’t contribute much to the storyline.  He needed much more character development and to know what he was fighting for.  The audience didn’t get him or understand who he was.  So he came across very bland and one-dimensional.

The actors worked well to create an ensemble and several of their group numbers were very powerful.  “Seasons of Love”, with a strong solo by an ensemble member, and  “La Vie Boheme” were especially good.

This is a rare opportunity for theatregoers to see Rent in Utah!  You will be blown away by the music and touched by the message that Rent conveys.  This is probably not the production to take your younger kids too.  I would rate it PG-13.  I would definitely encourage teenagers to attend, though.  It will leave you asking questions and inspired to love others and show greater compassion to all.  This message is at the heart of Utah culture and values, and this is a unique way to embrace this message in a new way—this show has the power to change.  Midvale is filling a niche in Utah by producing great works in its repertoire, perhaps perceived as controversial, rather than the standard Utah favorites (like Annie or Joseph…).  I applaud their courage and hope that theatregoers will be open minded and support this theatre.

“Rent” plays on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 7 pm with matinees at 2 pm on Saturdays through August 4.  Tickets are $15 per person with group rates available.  Midvale Main Street Theatre is located at 7711 South Main Street in Midvale.  Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 801-566-0596 or by visiting www.midvaletheatre.com.

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