By Patrick Hurley
Tackling addiction, poverty, and love Rent, is a dark, somewhat overwrought depiction of life in the East Village of New York City in the middle of the AIDS crisis.
Written by Jonathan Larson, who tragically died on the morning of the first New York Preview, and received a Posthumous Pulitzer Prize for it, the show feels somewhat anachronous. There are moments that still strongly resonate, but there is also a sense of urgency that is missing, because this feels written to a specific audience at a specific time. A time that while only two decades past, feels much farther somehow. Which, for us as society is probably a good thing.
Rent, playing now through November 15 at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, is boldly ambitious in its scope, with a massive set designed by Stephen Gifford, and Broadway-style direction and choreography by Richard Israel and Dana Solimando. It feels like a touring production of the original, rather than anything reimagined. This is mostly due to the fact that the material is so specific to the time in which it was written that the great challenge for any production must be making it feel new. It almost feels derivative of itself.
Rent follows the story of impoverished young artists in New York City in 1989. It is loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, and uses the AIDS crisis as the dark shadow looming over the major relationships. The story follows Mark Cohen (Mark Whitten), a wannabe filmmaker, and his guitar-playing HIV infected roommate Roger (Devin Archer). Roger falls in love with neighbor Mimi (Cassie Simone), an HIV infected exotic dancer. Then there’s Maureen (Emily Goglia), Mark’s ex-girlfriend who has recently dumped him for a woman, a lesbian lawyer named Joanne (Amber Mercomes). Rounding out the group is Tom Collins (John Devereaux), a college professor with HIV, and his partner Angel ((Lawrence Cummings), a transgendered percussionist, who is dying of AIDS. Focusing on navigating the difficulties of being a starving artist, a dying artist, and an artist deeply in love, oftentimes all at the same time, Rent gets a little convoluted in its own attempts at poignancy.
This production does a fine job of playing up the heightened emotions, However this brings some of the musical numbers to near melodrama, which does cause the intimacy of the piece to be overshadowed or even completely drowned out, but it does find balance between the two in such unifying numbers as “La Vie Boheme,” “Seasons of Love,” and the wonderfully touching “Will I?” It is in these moments where the sometimes over-wrought energy of the production takes a step back and we remember what it’s saying.
The entire ensemble dives into the material with great enthusiasm. Mark Whitten, as Mark, seems ideally cast, even reminiscent a bit of Anthony Rapp. Likewise, Devin Archer is quite good as Roger. His desperation for meaning comes through the actors nuanced performance. Lawrence Cummings is fabulous as Angel. He rides the line of stereotype, but never crosses it, Angel is utterly humanized by Mr. Cummings who infuses just as much heart as sass into the role and elevates her gracefully. Emily Goglia is another standout as Maureen. Her number “Over the Moon” is a ridiculously delicious piece of performance art that goes on way too long, but she earns every minute of it.
Though the piece feels dated, and the moments often range from a didactic to extravagant, there is something at the center of this piece that still resonates quite strongly. The idea that there is no day but today, that tomorrow might not come, is a beautifully simple sentiment, and one that proves all the more poignant when considering that these characters are dealing with a plague that decimated a community and forever changed the world. This is more than a musical about AIDS though, it’s more than about loss. It’s about love, rebirth, and embracing the beauty of the moment. Because in the end, it’s all we have.
Book, Music & Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Musical Direction by John Glaudini
Choreography by Dana Solimando
Directed by Richard Israel
October 24-November 15
Weds & Thurs: 730 PM
Sat: 2PM & 8PM
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Blvd.
La Mirada, CA. 90638
562.944.9801 or 714.994.6310