Jonathan Larson's Rent returns to Pittsburgh for a one-week engagement. This tour (known as the "Benny" tour) started in La Jolla in July 1997 and has traveled the U.S. ever since, with many cast changes. This Tony Award winning musical about struggling artists coping with"living in America, at the end of the millennium", battling personal demons, drugs, and AIDS, and trying to love and survive without selling out, has had great success and become a touchstone for young people all over the world.
Larson's music and lyrics are indestructible. Driving rock, ballads, bluesy soul tunes, and even a tango, the music is loud, but in the case of this production, not too loud. When performed well, Larson's creation is a show that is incredibly energetic, charming, and clever. The cast members on this tour stop achieved this goal with varying degrees of success.
It is always disheartening to open a program, especially on opening night, and see multiple slips of paper fluttering into your lap. There were five of those notes, reading "At this performance, the role of ..." on this opening night - including replacements for two principles. Marcus Chaney was thrust into the spotlight as Tom Collins and Curtis Cregan left the ensemble to play Mark Cohen. Chaney was a delight, a natural actor with a gorgeous voice. Cregan left much to be desired as Mark. He was well rehearsed, but stiff in his acting. He did shine, however, in the light-hearted "Tango Maureen" with Jacqueline B. Arnold as Joanne. I got the impression that Cregan is talented, but perhaps not suited to or ready for the role of Mark. Arnold also showed potential in her other numbers, but she needed more projection and better enunciation so her lines could be heard.
The role of Angel must be cast well to generate the right emotional response from the audience - without this response, the audience cannot become involved in the second half of the show. Shaun Earl, as Angel, performed his job well, though he seemed to be protecting his voice and almost whispering through some of the lyrics. He and Chaney worked very well together, providing an excellent version of one of the romantic couples. Another couple, Roger and Mimi, didn't work quite as well with the performances of Christian Mena and Saycon Sengbloh. Both of these actors were uneven in the vocal work, with Mena changing the volume of his voice too often and too severely. Mimi and Roger's second act duet, "Without You", was a disappointment.
By far the highlight of the evening (along with the previously mentioned Marcus Chaney) was Maggie Benjamin [at right] in the role of Maureen. She had the audience in the palm of her hand during her performance art piece "Over the Moon." Beautiful voice, perfectly comfortable in the role, Benjamin should have a promising career in musical theatre. She's more than ready for a stronger leading role. Although this Maureen and Joanne pairing didn't quite click for the whole show, it is to Benjamin's credit that the couple's duet "Take Me or Leave Me" was the success that it was.
The Rent ensemble members play many roles and the actors in this production were perfect - more than competent yet unobtrusive. The band was on the mark and, luckily, not projected at too high a volume as often happens at this theatre.
As has been the case with other tour casts, one factor that is a drawback is that the actors are physically just too healthy and robust (and buff in most cases) to allow full belief that they are sick or drug addicted or living in poverty. But the Pittsburgh audience, a mix of ages but including the ubiquitous two rows of "Rentheads", forgave this and other weaknesses and warmly welcomed the tour for this return.