Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Rent
Ritz Theatre Company
Review by Cameron Kelsall


The Cast
Photo by Chris Miller
Like the source material from which it draws—Giacomo Puccini's 1896 opera La Boheme—Jonathan Larson's magnum opus Rent has gone from being an exciting, transgressive paradigm shift in the history of an art form to a venerated cornerstone of the standard musical theatre repertoire. Over the course of its 12-year Broadway run (1996-2008), the changing landscape of New York City that the show predicted became a reality. Rent is now a cultural artifact, encapsulating a time in Manhattan's East Village that most of its current audience were not alive to see. So, can the musical still function as a satisfying piece of theater without its original exigency?

I suppose that depends on your feelings toward the show in the first place. I've personally never been too drawn to this musical, finding it a somewhat sanitized portrait of the time and place it purports to present with complete veracity. Despite their supposed commitment to la vie boheme, characters like Mark, Roger, and Maureen have always carried more than a whiff of privilege—just as the late composer could likely draw on his wealthy parents in White Plains for a few bucks here and there while living the artistic life below 14th Street in the late eighties and early nineties. And while some of the music is tuneful and occasionally moving, very little stays with me after I hear it.

After a brief (and unnecessary) Off-Broadway revival in 2011, Rent is now back where it belongs: the community theater. I saw it recently at the Ritz Theatre Company, which makes splendid use of its eponymous art deco theater in downtown Oaklyn, New Jersey. Ritz alumni include Tony nominee Cristin Milioti, who grew up in nearby Cherry Hill, and Phillip Spaeth, who is currently on Broadway as Rudolpho in Matilda. Rent is the final mainstage production of the company's 30th anniversary season.

In a bit of a casting coup, the Ritz has engaged Pennsauken native Krysten Cummings to play the role of Mimi Marquez, the HIV-positive stripper who falls in and out of love with the tragic musician Roger (Eric Lawry). Cummings played Mimi in the London premiere production of Rent, earning an Olivier Award nomination; she went on to play the role on Broadway and on a U.S. tour. Cummings burrows under the skin of her character and gives a fully realized performance, which you'd expect from someone who has been playing the character off and on for 20 years. Of course, she's far too old for the role—she gives the line "I'm nineteen, but I'm old for my age" a whole new meaning—but if you're willing to suspend disbelief, you're in for a treat.

The other star casting, if we can call it that, comes in the form of Cory Wade as Angel. A Philadelphia native and former contestant on "America's Next Top Model," Wade skillfully mines the humor and the pathos in what is inarguably the musical's most sympathetic character. He isn't the strongest singer, but he has style, as well as genuine chemistry with Michael Hogan, who plays Angel's lover, Tom Collins.

As Mark Cohen, Joshua Bessinger employs a pleasant voice and winning stage presence. His investment in the role is enough to make you forgive occasionally flat singing. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Lawry, who seems genuinely lost—vocally and dramatically—as Roger.

Martha Marie Wasser and Larisa Bunch turn in the evening's best performances, as Maureen and Joanne, respectively. Wasser nails Maureen's humor and delivers one of the most successful renditions of "Over the Moon," Maureen's difficult performance art piece, I've ever seen. Bunch is a tart and surprisingly funny Joanne. She also doubles as the "Seasons of Love" soloist, tearing the roof off the theater with impressive and effortless vocal pyrotechnics.

The ensemble performers are professional if unmemorable as is the direction by the company's founding artistic director Bruce A. Curless. The production is polished, but I doubt it will make any skeptical audience members long to live la vie boheme.

Rent continues through Sunday, November 22, 2015, at The Ritz Theatre (915 White Horse Pike, Haddon Township, NJ). Tickets can be purchased online at ritztheatreco.org, by phone (856-858-5230), or in person at the box office (hours: Tuesday-Friday, 1:00-6:00).

Cast
Mark: Joshua Bessinger
Roger: Eric Lawry
Mimi: Krysten Cummings
Collins: Michael Hogan
Maureen: Martha Marie Wasser
Joanne: Larisa Bunch
Angel: Cory Wade
Benny: Vincent Leggett
Steve, Squeegee Man, Waiter, Others: Charlie Gallagher
Paul, Cop, Others: Glenn D. Kessler
Gordon, The Man, Mr. Fray, Others: Achilles Inverso
Mr. Jefferson, Soloist, Pastor, Others: Marcel Smith
Mark's Mom, Allison, Others: Madalyn St. John
Alexi Darling, Roger's Mom, Others: Sarah Spangenberg
Mrs. Jefferson, Bag Woman, Others: Mary Fajardo
Mimi's Mom, Others: Daio Floyd
Please note: Cory Wade will not be performing Saturday, November 21.


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