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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

High-Octane Cast More than Earn Their Rent
at The 5th Avenue Theatre

Also see David's review of Miracle!

Rent
Ryah Nixon and Andi Alhadeff
Jonathan Larson's Rent, the rock musical based on Giacomo Puccini's opera La Bohème, receives its first major Seattle grown and cast production under the faithful, spirited and not overly reverential direction of Bill Berry at the 5th Avenue Theatre. The show, which famously opened Off-Broadway the night after Larson (who wrote the book, music and lyrics) died of Marfan syndrome, has always seemed a bit unfinished as a result, reliant on a strong opening cast including such future Broadway names as Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp and Daphne Rubin-Vega. Berry happily has found a near equally impressive cast of young Seattle-based pros to head up his production, and the result is often electric.

Rent tells the story of a year in the life of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York's Lower East Side in the thriving days of bohemian Alphabet City, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS, including aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen; his roommate, guitarist Roger; their friend, college professor/anarchist Tom Collins; Angel, a big-hearted drag queen who becomes Tom's lover (both men have AIDS); Mark's performance artist ex, Maureen; her new lover Joanne, a lawyer; club dancer/drug addict Mimi, who is caught up in a complicated triangle with Roger and his ex-friend and roommate Benjamin Coffin III, aka Benny. The often joyous first act yields to a more somber, reflective second act, in which relationships are tested and personal losses occur. Faithful, certainly in the broad strokes, to La Bohème, Larson's book is minimal but his songs are by turns theatrical, tuneful, invigorating and moving, from the show's breakout anthem "Seasons of Love" to such other notable numbers as "One Song Glory," "Tango Maureen," "Santa Fe," Take Me or Leave Me" and "Without You".

Aaron C. Finley and Naomi Morgan pair vibrantly as Roger and Mimi. Finley has maybe the best pop-style theatre voice in Seattle these days, while Morgan digs deep into herself in both her acting and vocals, and is especially persuasive with a wrenching rendition of "Without You." Daniel Berryman is warmly winning as Mark, touching as he portrays the observer of the show. As Collins, 5th Avenue regular Brandon O'Neill is perhaps a trifle too old amongst a mid-twenty something cast, though he imbues "Santa Fe" with raw power. In the show-stealing role of Angel, the scintillating Jerick Hoffer is a standout, propelling the character through his highs and lows with great success, and when Hoffer is onstage it is impossible for him not to be the center of attention. Another shining star of the production is Ryah Nixon, who is dazzling and stunningly original in the role of Maureen. Nixon is a rocket-powered vocal and emotive wonder, and her "Over the Moon" not only goes exactly there, but takes the whole audience along for the bracing ride. She has real chemistry with Andi Alhadeff's grounded, no-nonsense Joanne, and their "Take Me or Leave Me" is a second-act standout. As Benny, Logan Benedict earns points for his balanced portrayal of the conflicted rich boy who struggles to still hang onto vestiges of his old friendships.

Amongst a stalwart ensemble one cannot help but call out Eric Ankrim, Antonia Darlene, Kirsten deLohr Helland and Heath Saunders for special mention. The cast rock their vocals, thanks to expert vocal and music direction by the indispensable R.J. Tancioco, and I found the mix between vocalists and band a cut above what I have heard at many 5thg Avenue opening nights. Daniel Cruz's choreography is suitable, if never terribly inventive or exciting. Martin Christoffel's multi-level set is an eye-catching urban obstacle course, complemented by Tom Sturge's notable lighting design, and Pete Rush's costume designs capture the feeling of the era with aplomb.

Rent runs through August 19, 2012, at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue, Downtown Seattle. For tickets and more information go to www.5thavenue.org.


Photo: Mark Kitaoka



- David Edward Hughes



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