REVIEW: Xavier’s “Rent”

img_5470-xlI admire the work being done at Xavier University as they build upon the foundation set forth under the watch of Cathy Springfield and create a solid Theatre major.  I’ve seen just about every show they’ve produced in the last few years and there’s no doubt that the quality of shows is consistently improving.  The students are increasing in skill and the shows are getting bigger and better.

None are much bigger than the rock opera, RENT.   A frequently produced show, it is also one that is seldom done very well.  And so when it was announced as part of this year’s season I admit that I questioned whether this would be the one that caused the department to falter.  I hoped not, but you know . . .it’s RENT.

I’m happy to report that this production was a mammoth success.  Not only was it sold out two for most of the run, it also captured the heart and soul of Jonathan Larsen’s signature piece by focusing on the story and working within the boundaries and limitations faced by any new theatre department.

In his Director’s Notes, Stephen Skiles said the show was focusing on the idea of “community;” from what I’ve seen from this ragtag, up and coming group of students, this focus-point fits well at Xavier.  You cannot produce this epic without teamwork – and that kind of effort, comraderie, and sheer determination was at the forefront.  I was moved by what I saw.

Of course, there were some terrific peformances.  Griff Bludworth, a senior who has considerably grown on stage (while shrinking physically), was nearly perfect as Mark.  His duet with JoAnne (Maya Farhat, one of our area’s best young actresses)  during “The Tango Maureen” was fun, professional, and very well done.  Farhat also had great chemistry with Tatum Hunter (“Maureen”) during the very difficult and iconic Act Two number, “Take Me or Leave Me.”  Hunter, a brilliant playwright as well as performer, took control with the show-stopping number “Over the Moon.”  Everything about her performance screamed superstar.  Alex Robert’s “Mimi” and 2013 graduate Alex Antonelli (“Roger”) had nice chemistry while freshman Christian Hall (“Tom Collins”) showed good potential in his performance.  And in a star turn, Justin Lee jumped into the role of “Angel” and went full steam ahead with total immersion into character.  It was awe-inspiring.

The real star of this show, though, is not a person.  The team of tremendous people who have come together to announce to the world that Xavier has arrived on the scene in a region full of great University-level theatre should be commended.  That team includes a strong and smart leader, Stephen Skiles, choreographer Dee Anne Bryll, music director Scot Buzza, technical director Joe Leonard, and the large crew of costumers, technicians, sound and lighting operators, and musicians.  I also must recognize the phenomenal work of Nicole Santiago, stage manager, who leaves Xavier now equipped to manage stages anywhere she wants.  Stage Management is perhaps the most underrated piece of a production puzzle but from my observation there’s few better than this graduating senior.

Xavier is not a conservatory and doesn’t attract a thousand auditioners every year (CCM), nor does it have connections to famous movie stars (Wright State) or years of tradition of good productions to build from (NKU).  And I would be somewhat neglectful if I didn’t say that some show elements were rough; many vocals were certainly not perfect, some of the movement was less than stellar.  Mic cues were missed too frequently and there were times when the show’s pacing drug a little.

But when it was good, this RENT was very good.

With seven productions next year, one has to wonder yet again if Skiles and his team have bitten off more than they can chew.  However, given the track record so far I have high hopes for the years to come.

For more information on Xavier’s Theatre program click here.