Rent is one of those shows that most people either love or pretend that they hate. Anyone who has been exposed to a good production of this show is bound to love it. It is a great story about 20 individuals who despite their many flaws remain true to who they are even through very difficult times and situations. My first experience with this show, almost 15 years ago, was not a good one. This is a show that is not done often, as a result this past weekend was the first time I had another opportunity to see it again. I jumped at the chance hoping this time around my experience would be a different one.
I had not heard of “The Project” before and it is tucked a little out of the way at 258 West 700 South, the building is a modest sized warehouse and the parking lot is very small at just under 30 spaces. Parking was of course an issue, however I arrived 25 minutes before curtain so I was very surprised to not only see the parking lot full but also to be the third car that had too park on the street. When I arrived in the lobby the house was not yet open so I got to see how many others were waiting, there were only 8 other people in the lobby. So that means all the good parking was taken by 20 cast members and about 10 crew. Any time parking is at a premium in a production the cast and crew should park elsewhere. The warehouse space has modest sound and lighting equipment installed and the stage and set are equally modest. The production has done a good job making the modest set appear believable as a New York City block and it was more than functional.
Before the production started, the cast was participating in a little street theater acting out scenes that you might see in a rough New York City neighborhood. People begging for money, public intoxication, cops harassing the homeless and impromptu Christmas Caroling complete with a drummer using a paint bucket. While these performances were not bad, and they did interact with the audience to keep them engaged, this did go on for over 30 minutes and seemed rather drawn out especially since the show did start 10 minutes late.
However once the production got started all of these initial bad first impressions melted away. Rent is a show that requires each and every member of the cast to be a strong vocalist. This cast delivered, not only was each person a strong vocalist but they were all completely committed to their character. I was sitting in the first row and at time inches away from some cast members that had to stay in character for long periods at a time while not being the main focus on stage. That can be very difficult to do, especially in such a close setting.
Stand out performers that got my attention for great acting and fantastic voices were: Roger Davis played by Trent English; Mark Cohen played by Austin Archer; Tom Collins played by Aleksndr Arteaga and Angel Schunard played by Derek Gregerson. The other main characters were strong and more than delivered their characters: Benjamin Coffin III played by Sean J. Carter; Joanne Jefferson played by Nneka Barcelona; Mimi played by Connor Norton and Maureen played by Karli Rose Lowry. The overall music of the show was flawless; Musical Director Rick Rea has done a fantastic job making this show musically indistinguishable from a professional production.
I was pleasantly surprised at the opening of Act II when I heard that one of soloists for “Seasons of Love” was the girl I just saw cleaning up the stage at intermission. She was fantastic and could have easily been part of the cast in the production. It was the element of the random neighborhood soloist, the subdued but good costume design by Carolyn Urban and the minimal set that put the focus not on the actors but on the characters and the story which is exactly how Rent should be told. It made me realize my previous experience with this show had been at a production where the costumes, set and music were all overdone. Director William Cooper Howell resisted the temptation to go “over-the-top” with this production and stripped it down to its basic elements. This gives you the opportunity to reflect on the story being told without being distracted by other elements.
On the technical side, the band at times did seem to overpower the vocalists; however I was sitting on the band side. I am sure the balance was good in the back and the other side of the theater as there were only a small handful of times I had difficulty hearing the vocalists. This show is particularly difficult from a sound design standpoint as you have 20 characters who are always on the move and this show moves from one musical number to the next with very little or no time in between them. James Hansen did an excellent job with the sound design for this show. The only thing that seemed awkward was the use of multiple corded mics in the front of the stage. They all worked well but it seemed like some members of the cast were struggling with cord management of the mics as they walked back and forth with them.
This space also adds a technical challenge for lighting as there really is not a way to install theater lights in a cost effective manner in a warehouse. Only one bar of lights was hung from in front of the stage. With lights from only one vantage point this resulted in many shadows and some poorly lit corners of the stage. I also really did not notice many lighting moods, it seemed like it was always nighttime on a dimly lit street. I would have liked to have seen some fill lighting in Mike Gray’s lighting design to at least wash out some of the shadows and light up the corners of the stage.
Overall this show was fantastic, it is one of the few shows that I want to go see again before it closes. I had noticed online that someone from Utah Repertory Theater Company said something to the effect that online pre-sales were disappointing. That may be due to this show containing subject matter that is intended for a more mature audience as two of the characters are a couple with HIV. There is also very brief nudity and in the show which anytime that warning is posted does detract some audiences. This makes it a show that is probably only for adult audiences. However, this production’s treatment is such that makes this a parental judgment call. It would be a shame if these elements kept this show from attracting a large audience. For me this show is the second best I have seen this year, next to Jersey Boy’s at the Capitol Theater and it even got above Pioneer Theater’s production of Les Miserables. It is certainly the best semi-professional theatre production I have seen this year!
Utah Repertory Theater Company’s production of “Rent” performs September 20th – October 6th Thursday’s, Friday’s, Saturday’s and Sunday’s at 7:30 pm with a Matinee performance on Sunday October 6th at 2pm at The Project, 258 West 700 South, Salt Lake City, 84101. Tickets are $15 for students and seniors; $18 for adults and available at www.utahrep.org/tickets. Running time: Approx. 2 hours 15 minutes, 15 minute intermission.