For those who don't know the story behind Rent, composer Jonathan Larson died the night before the first performance Off-Broadway. While that alone was enough news to make headlines, the story, characters and score are what have turned the show into a much loved musical. However, the fact that Larson didn't get a chance to fine tune the piece through both the Off-Broadway preview process, as well as when the show transferred to Broadway, means there are still some rough patches. These include some confusion in the narrative, some less than perfect lyrics, and a couple of songs that aren't quite as good as the others.
Rent tells the story of a group of struggling young artists and musicians in Manhattan's Alphabet City on the Lower East Side around 1990; it is based somewhat on the Puccini opera La Boheme. For Rent, the tragedy of AIDS replaces tuberculosis in the Puccini opera and the grungy Lower East Side of Manhattan replaces Paris. The plot follows a fairly close group of eight people, including three couples, as they deal with love and loss over the course of a single year.
For the Spotlight production, director Kenny Grossman sticks fairly closely to the simple staging of the original production, though, with the smaller Spotlight stage, it can get a bit cramped when all sixteen actors are on stage. But Grossman also manages to get sincere, honest portrayals from each of his cast members, with the small space providing immediacy and an emotional connection you'd never get in a larger venue.
The eagerness of the young cast makes them all quite effective in their portrayals of these young starving artists from 1990. As Mark, the somewhat narrator of the piece, Jeremy Yampolsky is genuine, sincere and sings well. As Roger, Trey DeGroodt may not exactly look like an ex-rocker drug addict, though the addition of eye liner and painted fingernails helps, but he manages to bring a sense of regret and isolation to the part of this young, passionate, yet emotionally lost man. The raw sensibility that Mariella De Angelis brings to Mimi, the woman in love with Roger, is quite good, including how she effectively shows Mimi's downward spiral in act two once Mimi gets back into taking drugs.
As Angel, the sassy yet smart drag queen, Alex Acosta plays the part more in line with how I imagine a real drag queen would behave. In the original Broadway production many people didn't know for certain if Angel was really a man in drag for most of the first act. But for this production you never question that, which I think is more realistic and preferable. Acosta is also a gifted singer, dancer and actor, which elevates his performance into one that's very memorable. As Tom Collins, Angel's partner, Michael Schulz is superb, with a deep voice that adds an emotional weight to his songs and to his relationship with Angel. Together, Acosta and Schulz form a completely realistic couple as well.
Carly Grossman is very strong as Maureen, giving a keen sense of independency as well as a hilarious version of Maureen's performance piece. Ali Whitwell's take on Joanne is perfect, one of the best I've seen. She is feisty, sexy, sweet and romantic, all at the same time. But it is the way she shows hurt and frustration that makes it an exceptional performance. The role of Benny, the main antagonist of the piece, though a somewhat thankless role, gets a nice turn from John Batchan.
Kenny Grossman is straightforward in his direction yet creative in the use of the raised platforms and the various exits out of the theatre to provide additional playing areas. While on Broadway the set design was fairly minimalistic with just some tables, a walkway and a staircase, Spotlight adds multiple ladders, a staircase, and elevated platforms as well as other metal elements and a few video screen images to provide a more elaborate and chaotic element to the production. While this mostly works in favor of the chaos on stage at several times, it also sometimes works against the piece, with less space now available for the actors to move, resulting in a more cramped atmosphere. Lynzee 4Man adds an abundance of choreography and movement that uses the ensemble very effectively.
The small band, like on Broadway, is just off to the side of the stage and Mark 4Man provides exceptional musical direction. However, having a loud rock show in a small space means there are a few times when the sound level is too overpowering for the area, and sometimes the vocals seem a bit shrill. Fortunately, the rest of the sound design is quite effective, providing a nice balance to the vocals in the ensemble numbers.
From Broadway to tours and high school versions, Rent proves that, even when performed by a talented group of teenagers and a few kids in their very early 20s, it is an enjoyable and emotionally effective piece of theatre with an energetic and timeless score. Spotlight's production of this well-loved musical is first rate.
Spotlight Youth Theatre's production of Rent runs through February 1st, 2015, with performances at 10620 N 43rd Avenue in Glendale. Tickets and information can be found at http://www.spotlightyouththeatre.org/ or by calling 602.843.8318
Director: Kenny Grossman