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Chicago by John Olson

Rent
NightBlue Performing Arts Company

Also see John's review of A Separate Peace

Rent
Chris Froseth and Victoria Caciopoli
I don't recall if there was celebration in September of 2008 when Rent finished its 12+ year run on Broadway, but there should have been. Nothing against the show—it's one of my favorites, and I'm happy it was a success. The good news in its closing was that the piece was soon to be freed from the Michael Grief staging in which it was trapped throughout its run on Broadway and in the many road engagements that followed. The farewell tour featuring original leads Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal closed just weeks ago, on February 7, 2010, and performance rights have been opened to all who can pay the royalties. All sorts of directors can take a shot at now, and put it up in more intimate venues the size of the off-Broadway house in which it was originally staged. Mark can even change out of that striped sweater!

Chicago's NightBlue Performing Arts Company is one of the first to get a chance to show how different and better staging can improve Jonathan Larson's rock musical, and directors Brian LaDuca and David Walters give it much more narrative clarity and greater dramatic power than it had in Greif's staged-concert-like staging. They do this without any major re-imagining of the piece, but through common-sense blocking and lighting design (by Christopher Burpee) that visually reinforce the story that was previously told mostly verbally. This production's set (designed by LaDuca, Walters and Diane Kaffka) is similar to the original—it includes a two-level platform, here made of wood rather than metal as on Broadway and tour. The team makes better use of the set, though, to establish the story's different locales and to focus the audience on the most important action. They communicate more depth in the piece as well. When Roger and Mimi sing "Without You," spots are also on the other couples—Maureen and Joanne, and Angel and Collins—whose relationships are threatened as well. The song has a broader dramatic significance because of it.

Just as important to the piece's narrative clarity is sound designer Jim Donnelly's mixing so that we can actually hear the lyrics through which so much of the exposition is communicated. The four-piece band of keyboard, guitar, bass and drums, led by Jason Krumweide, who along with Pat Rinkenberger provide musical direction, is in perfect balance with the vocals. While Larson's lyrics are dense and frequently travel a mile a minute, the audience has an easier time comprehending them now. A smaller venue, like the space used at the Theater Building which seats around 100, helps as well with the clarity of the sound. Also, the theater's black-box space, with its naked walls giving it an industrial look, has the perfect feel for this scrappy, grungy musical.

Larson's rich rock score is well sung by the cast. All are matched to the demands of their parts, and particular standouts are Victoria Caciopoli (the only Equity member in the cast) as Mimi and Chris Froseth as Roger, both of whom have the bona fide rock chops necessary to put over their songs. Caciopoli's Mimi is more confident and together than we've seen her played before. We're drawn to her greater strength, even though it makes her further descent into addiction and illness a little less justified. Similarly, Froseth plays Roger as more mentally healthy, less depressed than the text indicates. Though his acting is less nuanced than it might be, he has the rock star presence for the part. Govind Kumar is a sweet, street-smart Angel, with strong vocals that establish him as a solid musical theater performer after his turn in TimeLine's acclaimed History Boys of last summer. (He also deserves special recognition for opening in Steppenwolf's A Separate Peace within 15 hours of this performance.) His Collins is the gorgeous-voiced Brian-Alwyn Newland, who, like a few others in the cast, is less comfortable physically than vocally, sometimes falling into a distracting rocking motion while singing. Regardless, his "Santa Fe" and "I'll Cover You" are winners. Diane Mair and Whitney White's Maureen and Joanne are sexy femme lesbians, and their confident "Take Me or Leave Me" is a highlight of the show in the best musical-comedy sense. Jonathan Hymen, playing Mark sans the aforementioned sweater but with the equally iconic horn-rimmed glasses, captures Anthony Rapp's nasal vocal tone as if to underscore his character's insecurity and whininess. Quinton Guyton, though singing the part of Benny capably, doesn't quite capture the character's conflicts in trying to be a businessman and ally to his struggling artists at the same time.

Though this production's casting and musical performances will feel quite comfortable to fans of the original cast recording, the directors were unafraid to move away from Rent's most familiar bits of staging. "Seasons of Love" is sung by the company scattered about the stage, rather than in a straight line as in the original staging. "La Vie Bohème" is re-imagined effectively for the space. It would probably have been impractical to bring on a long dining table for the scene in the Life Café, but choreographer Katie Spelman has the cast make great use of their chairs, in a number that has even more motion and unpredictability than did the Broadway dance staging. For the finale, the production has a short film of Mark and Roger, but foregoes the longer film showing all the major characters. The directors close the musical on a quiet note, rather than going for a more traditionally strident musical theater ending. It works because they've placed enough emphasis on the story and characters to let the piece end on its merits as drama. They even go so far as to forego bow music, as if to keep the audience in a reflective mood.

The production has just a few minor missteps. The costumes by Walters and Laura Zettergren seem to cast the entire ensemble of eight as homeless people rather than penniless artists and this suggests a slightly different milieu. Further, the voice messages left by the characters' parents are sung onstage by the performers playing the homeless, rather than being heard in offstage recordings. It's a just bit confusing as to what characters are singing these messages.

I'd imagine most Rentheads would enjoy this production, even if some have trouble adjusting their persistence of vision from the Grief staging. More importantly, though, this production ought to win new fans for the piece among those who found it too difficult to hear and follow in the Broadway and touring productions. Those who come to this piece as their first exposure to Rent will likely be blown away by the piece as it is performed here.

Rentwill be performed through March 28, 2010 at Theater Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 P.M and on Sundays at 3:00 P.M. Tickets range from $25 to $30. Tickets may be purchased at Theater Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Chicago IL 60657, (773) 327-5252 in advance or at the door, or by contacting Ticketmaster at ticketmaster.com or (800) 745-3000. More information at www.nightbluetheater.com/.


Photo: Drew Peterson

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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