A bold production of a modern classic
Tonight, The Carnegie opened RENT, the second in their summer season (INTO THE WOODS is already running; GEORGE REMUS begins in August). It’s full of bold choices – some work well, others not so much – but the cast and crew are fully committed to their performance and presentation.
Honestly, this is likely the best version of this show to be produced in the area for some time. Using mostly talented actors and actresses from UC-CCM elevates the acting and singing beyond what we typically see when this show is staged locally. I could (fairly) be criticized for having a CCM bias; I do love the place and feel it’s one of Cincinnati theatre’s strangest-kept secrets. That said, I didn’t love everything about this show – and a lot of it is purely personal taste regarding some of the bold choices referenced above.
RENT is, of course, the Jonathan Larson musical about AIDS, drugs, homelessness, and more set in NYC over a year in the late 80s/early 90s. While it indeed centers around those topics, the thing that makes RENT so powerful is the focus on the relationships between the characters. It’s like a grungy R-rated version of “Friends.”
By the way, dramaturg and sensitivity coordinator Darnell Pierre Benjamin walked this cast through the history of the social issues of the time to prepare them for their roles; it makes me realize how old I’m getting to think that this generation of performers would – obviously – need a history lesson about a time that is so vivid in my memory. :::sigh:::
Director/Choreographer Eric Byrd, who also directed and choreographed NEWSIES this summer featuring a trio of CCMers, has quite a cast.
August Bagg (Mark) is perfect for the role. His singing is precise, his acting is nuanced, subtle, and full of the right choices – and he shows he can dance, too. His groundedness as a performer keeps this show on the rails. Jackson Reagin (Roger) continues to excel as he grows better each time he’s on stage.
Ranease Brown (Mimi) is a vocal powerhouse – and bravely embodies this damaged woman who reclaims her power through her sexuality. Sean Polk II (Tom Collins) emotes with the best of them and brings the character to life with tremendous heart.
And then there’s Jamal Stone (Angel). I had to check the program twice and then verify on FaceBook that it really was him; the transformation from evil stepsister in INTO THE WOODS to this ferocious character is stunning. One of my favorite moments in the show (and I have several) is Angel’s big solo number. I’m sure most people will be impressed by his incredible dancing (and bold choreography), but for me, the vocal prowess makes Stone a superstar. I was blown away by the entire performance.
Sarah Jane Nelson is a charismatic, believable Maureen. Full of herself, with good reason, this character is one of the most interesting – and has one of the best songs along with duet partner Julia Schick (Joanne). Schick can do more with a facial expression than some actors do with an entire monologue; wow, she’s good.
Rounding out the cast are NKU grad Tayshawn Elliott (Benny) and ensemble members Tyler J. Martin, Julia Noelle Brosas (a Wright State student), Madison Mosley, Eliza Levy, and Nick Pattarini. Their contributions to the sound and look of the show are fantastic – especially Martin and Mosley, who shine on the classic “Seasons of Love.”
Remember those bold choices? The costumes by Allison Jones are very… colorful. The second act is more aggressive than sad, and I felt the story was a bit lost as a result. And at times, I felt like I was being screamed at rather than sung to. But if I’m going to be yelled at, well, I prefer it be on pitch. That’s never in question here. Still… just because you can doesn’t always mean you should when it comes to riffing and belting. Just my opinion.
Tyler Duncan Gabbard’s set and prop design are of the highest quality; the use of tables and, of course, the need to be able to use this set for three different shows running simultaneously presented a challenge – and he more than rose to the occasion. I also love the colorful posters on the back wall; more boldness! Avery Reynolds’s sound design is solid, especially given the acoustic challenges this space often provides. Alaina Pizzoferrato’s proficient lighting design ensures that every critical moment is spotlighted and that the show feels like the rock epic it is supposed to be. Musical Director Steve Goers does some voodoo magic by laying down a track that feels as live as you can get without actually being live.
The large opening night audience was diverse; that was refreshing. There were your typical older theatre fans, but a new generation of young people whose parents likely introduced them to this groundbreaking show and are now in love with the score and the characters. They were all loving this ambitious, bold production. I think you will, too.
See RENT along with the other shows in rep at The Carnegie by clicking here.