Saturday, August 14, 2010

Rock & Rent

As promised, an expanded version of my review of Ferndale Rep's Rent, as it appeared in the NC Journal. There was one slight error in the published piece, which was entirely my fault: "Tiggerbouncer as the inspiring Angel" failed to capitalize Angel, for in addition to being a description of the character's function, it's also the character's name: Angel. I was probably too worried about getting the name Tiggerbouncer correct, as it appears in the program.

I begin the review with an autobiographical note. Apart from the oddity of several productions this year bearing on aspects of my own life, I've come to subscribe to the Tom Stoppard philosophy of reviewing, which is that the job essentially is to describe as truthfully as possible your own experience and response to a show, that time that you saw it. But we all bring something of our own to each of these experiences--maybe memories of previous productions, particular expectations or aspects of our lives that color the theatrical experience--and to the extent you feel any of these are important, it's best to state them...

I lived in New York briefly in the 1980s, and visited frequently throughout the decade. I knew, talked and worked with, overheard and interviewed dozens of artists (in theatre, painting, filmmaking, dance, writing, etc.), when conversations on the subject of survival (artistic and actual) centered on rent. It was when real estate prices and rents first shot into the stratosphere, and finding and affording a place to live became a much greater struggle than it had been for previous generations of aspiring artists. Rent was the defining item and the dominant topic—until overrun by the savage plague of AIDS.

This is the context for Jonathan Larson's rock musical Rent, with the East Village in the late 80s as its focus—a place of extremes, symbolized for me one afternoon by a block of derelict buildings along a street strewn with broken glass, with one parked car: a Rolls Royce in front of a new art gallery in a padlocked loft.

In the long genesis of Rent, Jonathan Larson combined the spine of Puccini’s opera La Boheme and aspects of his own life with other cultural touchstones, especially common American holidays. Though its seams sometimes show, and I find the opera style (no spoken dialogue) a little too relentless for a piece this long and frenetic, it’s an affecting theatrical adventure that has won establishment awards, popular success and a cult following.

It’s clear even from down in the audience that the cast of the Ferndale Repertory Theatre production is very committed to the material and to each other. While that's probably true of many productions (even if there's tension and enmity among some), it's particularly important to this show because of its theme. For "Rent" has another meaning, as in a fabric torn, or relationships divided, or even the tears in internal fabric pulled in opposite directions by, among other things, art and money. While this play's story is a bit thin if you simply wrote it out, or even acted as a non-musical drama, it must depend on the emotions of relationships that the cast is able to project. If there is emotional commitment, that makes projecting it easier.

It also adds an extra dimension to energetic and convincing performances. Kyle Ryan as the young songwriter, Christopher Hatcher as the aspiring filmmaker, Tiggerbouncer as the inspiring Angel, and Danielle Cichon as the troubled dancer carry much of the load, with major contributions from Joel Armin-Hoiland, Craig Waldvogel, Molly Severida and Elena Tessler (who has a tour de force number as the performance artist Maureen.)

The vocal quality varied, but considering that I saw this the Sunday afternoon after the first Saturday performance, I gave the wandering ones a pass. Considering how much and how acrobatically the singers had to move, it's a wonder they got anything out at all. I've heard Chris Hatcher before, and his trained voice is dependably strong. Elena Tessler just about blew out the microphones, in a powerful performance. Kyle Ryan sang more than I'd heard him sing before, and was impressive. The variety of vocal styles seemed to match nicely with the variety of musical styles in the songs. The plaintive quality of Danielle Cichon's singing was particularly effective in the second act.

Guest director/choreographer Millicent Johnnie (from Southern Methodist University in Dallas) keeps the cast in constant motion. With scenic design by Daniel C. Nyiri, lighting by Patrick Sullivan and costumes by Gabriel Holman, the ambiance is convincing. From my perspective, there were moments I felt I was watching ghosts.

At the same time, the tasty band (James Caton, Devin Galdieri, Justin Ross, Austin Schmalz and Jonathan Webster) and music directed by Nanette Voss served the story and the songs. The music (which mixes hip-hop and Who-style rock with a tango and some Warren Zevon howling) and the funny, trenchant and poignant lyrics make clear how large is the loss of writer Jonathan Larson, who died of a heart ailment on the eve of Rent’s off-Broadway premiere.

Larson's including phone calls from parents is interesting. At this remove it makes sense in grounding the characters, but at the time, prior lives (especially in rich suburbs) weren't part of the mythology downtown artists typically projected. The image of the Artist sprung fully grown from New York was in some ways the whole point of being there--self-created, but exportable. But the changes in some of the characters in relation to AIDS (in early versions of the show apparently all of them had it) does show in an uncertainty about how central it was to the story. The death of one character, and the she's dead--oh wait, no she isn't resurrection of another bordered on predictable. It takes a lot of taste and showmanship to pull those off. Judgments will differ on how well this production does it.

Apart from those who remember the 80s, the universal aspects of the story plus the music appeals to younger audiences as well, including those who were captivated by this show before. That's apt to be encouraged by the admirable energy, emotion and skill of this production.

Rent continues at Ferndale Rep Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2 until August 29.

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