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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Second Story Repertory's Rent is Paid in Full

I saw Rent last just over a year ago at 5th Avenue Theatre in a production notable for its strong cast, but a little heavy on the flash and production values that a big professional company can lavish on its shows. In all the years since Rent became one of the last blockbuster American musicals, I had never seen it done in an intimate space with a modest budget, which is what the current production at Redmond's Second Story Repertory Theatre is, and it is far and away the best version of the show I have witnessed. Directed with verve and passion by Jeff Orton and performed by a cast with talent to burn, it is well worth seeing be you a fan or foe of the show itself.

For the benefit of any cave dwelling readers, Rent is a rock musical with music and lyrics by the late Jonathan Larson based on Giacomo Puccini's opera La Bohème. It tells the story 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. From a 1994 Off-Broadway workshop, the show opened Off-Broadway in January 1996, then moved to Broadway in April that same year winning Tony Awards for Best Book and Score for Larson (posthumously, as he died just prior to the Off-Broadway opening) and for Best Musical; it subsequently took the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well.

The action plays out over two Christmas seasons. Jewish filmmaker Mark is documenting the lives of several of his friends, including his HIV positive musician roommate Roger, Roger's exotic dancer girlfriend Mimi, who is also HIV+ and drug addicted, Mark's ex-girlfriend performance artist Maureen, lawyer Joanne who is Maureen's lesbian partner, gay anarchist Tom Collins who becomes involved with drag queen Angel, and landlord Benny. The role of Mark begins mostly as an observer by nature, but the events in his friends' lives transform him into a more active and passionate personality. As Mark, Andrew Murray succeeds in showing the character's evolution, from his playful act one duet "Tango Maureen" opposite Sarah Russell's Joanne to his impassioned act two feature "What You Own." Ian Kelly as Roger has a rich baritone and a dynamic presence while Alex Davis-Brazill has the right sultry look and attitude for Mimi, though her high notes are not as impressive, which keeps her work on "Out Tonight" from being all it might be. The pair really score, however, on their big act two duet "Without You."

Joshua Downs is simply wonderful and moving as Tom Collins and, paired with Bo Mellinger's campy, flashy yet never exaggerated work as Angel, they are the best coupling onstage, soaring through numbers like "Santa Fe" and "Today for You." Tori Spero is enormously appealing and vocally on her "A" game, taking her big number "Over the Moon" over the moon and then some. Spero and Russell both sell the duet "Take Me Or Leave Me" vocally, though Russell is not yet as impressive an actress as a singer. Eric Hagreen strikes just the right chords with the challenging role of the sometimes not so likable Benny. Notable character turns in the vocally powerful ensemble are delivered by Amanda Louise Carpp, Brett Brennan, Meghan Derr, and C.J. Conrad, and the whole company pours their hearts into the show's signature song "Seasons of Love."

Troy Wageman's earthy choreography is dance borne of emotion school, exciting and never showy for its own sake. Julia Thornton's musical direction of the cast is impeccable, and her sextet of musicians do justice to the score, though sometimes the balance between vocalists and band is less than ideal, despite the vocalists being miked. The compact SSR house and stage space give the show beneficial intimacy and immediacy. The scruffy, gritty feeling of Alphabet City is perfectly captured in Mark Chenovick's set design (love the TVs!), masterfully accented by Alyssa Milione's lighting.

Rent runs through May 5, 2013, at Second Story Repertory Theatre, in Redmond Town Center. For more information go to www.secondstoryrep.org.



- David Edward Hughes



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