Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's review of Sister Act
In her opening night speech at Scottsdale Community Players, director Maureen Dias-Watson said that, while some people believe the show is now dated, since AIDS is no longer the death sentence that is portrayed in the show, the sense of community Larson focuses on and how he depicts the belief that the people in the family you choose, and not the family you're born into, can be the ones you rely on is still incredibly relevant. I couldn't agree more with Dias-Watson's assessment of this show and how it brings to the forefront the importance of friendship to help tackle your issues. The talented cast of teens and young adults in this production instill the same sense of importance and urgency that I remember feeling when first seeing this show on Broadway. It is a solid production of the much-loved musical.
Set in Manhattan's gritty and dirty Alphabet City on the Lower East Side in the 1990s, Rent tells the story of a tight-knit group of eight struggling young artists and musicians, including three couples, as they deal with love and loss over the course of a single year. Larson based his musical on the Puccini opera La Bohème, using the tragedy of AIDS as a modern update for the plight of tuberculosis that Puccini used in his opera and changing the locale from the downtrodden bohemian setting of Paris to the grungy Lower East Side of Manhattan.
While Rent is a well-made show with many beloved songs, there are a few rough spots in the narrative, some lyrics that are a bit odd, and a couple of songs that aren't quite on the same level as the show's break-out "Seasons of Love." Most of these small shortcomings can be attributed to the fact that Larson died the night before the first performance of Rent Off-Broadway, so he didn't get a chance to fine tune the piece for both that production and when the show transferred to Broadway.
Dias-Watson's direction doesn't just stick close to the staging of the original Broadway production, and her original touches help fill in a few of the missing gaps in Larson's script. She also expands the ensemble to give a fuller sense to the scenes that feature crowds, though there are a few times when the ensemble borders on overpowering the main cast. Her direction of the leads ensures they all depict honest, realistic and sincere characters. While the Greasepaint Youth Theatre stage is fairly large, she stages the emotional moments very well, with most of those scenes played closer to the front of the stage, helping to provide an emotional connection and immediacy to the piece.
All members of the cast do an incredible job in getting across the eagerness of their characters and the situations they are facing. With a lovely singing voice and great stage presence, Jack Walton is very good as Mark, the narrator of the piece. He brings the right combination of nerdiness, sincerity, compassion and doubt to the young man who starts to wonder if the reason he is alone is because he will be the only one to survive so he can document the events of his friend's lives. As Roger, Kale Burr has the perfect look as the lost ex-rocker, ex-drug addict and a wonderful, husky singing voice. His downcast eyes and measured line delivery beautifully depict the feeling of an emotionally lost young man who feels a deep sense of regret from his past decisions and who prefers isolation instead of facing reality. Noa Gauthier is very good as the raw and direct Mimi, the woman who falls hard for Roger. Her powerful voice works well on her songs and she does a fairly good job in depicting Mimi's downward spiral in act two once she goes back to using drugs.
Micah Lawrence brings compassion and a lovely and rich singing voice that adds an appropriate emotional weight to Tom Collins, Roger and Mark's former roommate. Bennett Wood infuses drag queen Angel, Collins' partner, with sass, street smarts, a bright singing voice, and a wonderfully realistic and personal connection to every member of the cast. Greer Tornquist is hilarious as Maureen, the performance artist who used to date Mark. She beautifully depicts this fiercely independent woman and her performance piece is superbly done. Destinee McCaster is absolutely superb as Joanne, Maureen's current girlfriend, in one of the best portrayals of the part I've seen. She is authoritative and feisty, but also brings a beautiful sense of romance and passion to the role, and her ability to depict Joanne's frustration, hurt and pain is exceptional. Also, her singing voice is top notch. Lawrence and Wood and Tornquist and McCaster do a very good job portraying completely realistic couples. While the role of Benny is a somewhat thankless part, Joseph Cavazos' gorgeous singing voice and assured line delivery make him more than the usual antagonist I've seen him depicted in other productions. Also, Emma Sucato and Jacob Shore deliver lovely solos in "Seasons of Love" and Taylor Penn does very well in the small part of Mark's mother.
Mary Ellen Loose's music direction and conducting of the small band delivers a perfect rock-infused sound. Tom Holmberg's set design uses a series of metal scrims, platforms and stairs to depict the rough East Village environment. Choreographer Dale Nakagawa employs some upbeat and varied dance steps that breath life into many of the ensemble pieces without overpowering the story. Peter Bish's sound design ensures every line of dialogue and lyric is crystal clear. The only quibbles I have with the otherwise effective creative elements are the lighting by Bob Nelson, which was sometimes too dark at the opening night performance, and the costume designs, especially the ones for Angel which are a bit too "normal" looking for what we are told is a bright and originally creative character.
Even today, more than 20 years after it first premiered, the themes, characters and emotions of Rent still resonate. With a gifted cast of young adults and clear direction, Scottsdale Community Players' production of Rent brings this very adult story to vibrant life.
Scottsdale Community Players' Rent, through August 10, 2019, at Greasepaint Youth Theatre, 7020 E. 2nd Street, Scottsdale AZ. For information and to purchase tickets, call 480-949-7529 or visit www.greasepaint.org.
Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson