“It’s time now to sing out, though the story never ends”! Remembering “a year in the life of friends”, “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” in association with McCoy-Rigby Entertainment are marking the 20th anniversary of one of the most ground-breaking musicals of the past few decades with the second production of their 2015-2016 season: “Rent”! Winner of both the 1996 Tony Award for “Best Musical” and the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the show has become a bona-fide pop-cultural phenomenon. Loosely based on Puccini’s opera “La Boheme” and featuring a book, music & lyrics by Jonathan Larson, this refreshingly reimagined new production is directed by Richard Israel with Musical Direction by John Glaudini and Choreography by Dana Solimando. Infused with an electrifying score and a story that speaks to the indomitable strength and resiliency of the human spirit, “Rent” exhorts us all to “forget regret, or life is yours to miss”.
Following an eclectic group of young artists struggling with addiction, poverty, and the conundrums of love (and how to make it last,) we are transported to the East Village of New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis of the early 1990’s. Ironically, on opening night, Producer Tom McCoy poised the question (poised of him) “Is ‘Rent’ still relevant?” To honestly answer, one need only look as far as recent celebrity revelations to be reminded of the continuing (–and as frequently devastating–) state of HIV, AIDS, and ARC; happily however, this new production is just as alive and life-affirming as it was when it first debuted, and most assuredly remains as deeply relatable for today’s audiences. Larson’s recitative-heavy book and lyrics (with additional lyrics by Billy Aronson) features long musicalized passages that seamlessly blend dialogue into song, further paying homage to show’s source material. Moreover, the script is invigorated with plenty of humor which effectively contrasts the heavier themes (the ‘mock holiday carol’ sung by a group of homeless individuals that keeps popping up is a prime example of this, not only setting the time, but inserting a few unexpected bits of sharply humored commentary to boot: “Christmas Bells are ringing” it asserts “—somewhere else!”) It also affords an abundance of opportunities for terrific group harmonies and chances for this talented ensemble to shine! The number titled “Life Support”—a desperately encouraging avowal set to music that expresses one of the key themes of the show as a band of those with HIV and AIDS try to keep up their courage in the face of the unknown, is probably one of the most moving moments of theater audiences are likely to experience this season; while “Will I” is another incredible group effort that serves as a kind of suffix to this previous number. Both profoundly tap into our collective fears of any illness, infirmity or encroaching vulnerability while offering hope that inner-strength through unity can triumph.
Accentuating these textual assets, Israel’s direction itself accomplishes several remarkable things: maintaining the show’s incredible intimacy, putting the various couples and their relationships in the forefront while opening it up enough to make splendid use of the entire irrepressibly energetic 16 person cast. In addition, he shrewdly defies expectation at turns, reinvigorating the proceedings with a few clever polishing touches along the way. Foregoing what has become the traditional opening in numerous incarnations (and perhaps most iconic song) “Seasons Of Love”, Israel takes us right into the action making all the more impactful the ‘titular’ opening, “Rent” (“We’re not gonna pay, last year’s rent—this year’s rent—next year’s rent!”) Later when “Seasons” does emerge at the commencement of the second act, it’s just as majestic and unforgettable—featuring the entire cast; indeed, for this version most of the solo parts are given to several noteworthy high-powered voices among the ensemble players. In the same way, there are several really memorable duets, and here, he’s seen to that they all hit their marks; then, in still another great display of originality, “Mark’s” closing ‘documentary’ that he works on throughout the show, cleverly consists of actual ‘behind-the-scenes’ footage from the production and rehearsals.
Solimando’s choreography similarly favors simplicity in numbers like “Take Me Out” and the buoyant “La Vie Boheme”, both of which are still lively but present movement that’s more natural and (seemingly) spontaneous rather than big and showy (these characters after all, don’t live large, grandiose lifestyles, making these less-pretentious dance choices much more fitting and believable.) Likewise, her take on “The Tango Maureen” is kept surprisingly straight-forward taking on an attitude that’s more akin to 1960’s surf rhythms reminiscent of say, “Dick Dale and the Del Tones” than your traditional Latin “tango”–but it works (there are lots of fine, funny moments in this one too.) “Santa Fe” also gives rise to a nice ‘free-spirited’ dance interlude that looks completely impromptu. The expansive grimy uber-metropolitan settings by Stephen Gifford effectively recall the claustrophobic urban-scrawl of The Big Apple‘s notorious “Alphabet City”, while Thomas G. Marquez’s costume design is just arty enough to suggest the late 80’s/early 90’s, and each are in keeping with the show’s overall “hip but down-trodden” look. Wonderfully complimenting both is Steven Young’s appropriately shadowy lighting design, which utilizes plenty of still-photo and video projections to accentuate and ‘comment on’ the on-stage goings on. All these technical fundamentals go far in substantiating the illusion of a cold and desolate inner-city.
Mark Whitten is the bespectacled documentarian “Mark” who sets out to preserve this fateful year which serves as the through-line for the story. In many ways, a potentially thankless, role, Whitten brilliantly stands out—launching the opening, then again demonstrating his dexterity with Larson’s lyrics with the 11 O’clock stunner “What You Own”. In between, he serves as narrator, facilitator (and at times, peace-maker) for all the other characters and the dramas they undergo. (“The opposite of war isn’t peace,” he proclaims “It’s creation!”) Cassie Simone too, is particularly likeable as “Mimi” the nineteen-year-old exotic dancer at “The Kat-Scratch Club”. This is especially important for this character, as it helps us ‘stay by her’ despite “Mimi’s” on-going drug addiction along with a plethora of other issues that, with lesser empathetic proficiencies than Ms. Simone’s, might be a bit more challenging. Possessing an awesomely affecting voice that can send chills down your spine while bringing tears to your eyes, Simone positively rocks with “Out Tonight”, and even earlier with her part in the playfully seductive “Light My Candle”, wherein she first approaches her “down stairs neighbor”, “Roger”. She also elevates the heart-rending “Without You” into a genuine post-intermission high-point. (Subsequently, when “Mimi”, sick and half-frozen, reaches her climactic “crisis”, heard are snippets of “Musetta’s Waltz”–arguably amongst the most recognizable of Puccini’s work—and practically synonymous with “La Boheme”.) Sporting a hard-edged “Rock-Star” persona, Devin Archer joins her as “Roger”. Persuasively sexy and larger than life, his strong, expressive voice is well-suited for “One Song Glory” as we learn of both his frustration as an artist that he can’t quite nail that ‘perfect’ refrain, but also the poignant circumstances as to how he became HIV positive. He also pulls all the stops out for “What You Own”—dynamically assuring us “We’re dying in America to come into our own–and when you’re dying in America (at the end of the millennium) you’re not alone!” Archer again strikes tuneful gold with his part in “Light My Candle” while together with Simone, they turn “I Should Tell You” into an engagingly intimate duologue that caps off Act One, while again illuminating Larson’s amazingly evocative turn-of-phrase: “Trusting desire, starting to learn, walking through fire without a burn; clinging a shoulder, a leap begins, stinging and older, asleep on pins.”
As Mark and Roger’s former house-mate, Tom “Collins” (known by just his last name) John Devereaux furnishes a sonorous and soulful voice which he puts to good use in “Santa Fe” and “I’ll Cover You”, but it’s with this latter number’s second act reprise (complete with “Seasons Of Love” chorale underscoring) that he really proves the resounding depth of emotion he can convey through song. Immediately upon making his initial appearance, Collins, (whom we’ll learn is a recently expelled M.I.T. Professor of Computer-Age Philosophy who “once ran naked through the Parthenon”,) is mugged on his first evening back in the city—on Christmas Eve! Yet this turns out to a decidedly fortuitous incident because due to this he meets “Angel”—a compassionate cross-dressing drummer who will become his love-interest. As “Angel” Lawrence Cummings is an immediate crowd favorite (plus, he gets the very best costumes in the show!) Always the optimist, Angel also gets some of the best lines (“Times are shitty’” he acknowledges, “but they couldn’t get any worse!”) Handily serving as the “emotional center” of the entire piece, he makes his winning impression quickly with “Today For You (Tomorrow For Me)”–dressed as “Mrs. Claus” no less; then shortly after, doing an equally commendable job with his half of “I’ll Cover You”.
The third couple the show introduces are Emily Goglia as Mark’s bisexual former girlfriend “Maureen”—a Performance Artist who has since paired-up with “Joanne”—a no-nonsense lawyer, who doesn’t always understand her new steady’s chronic ‘wild-child’ ways, escalating worries that this “Miss Right” could be a Mis-take! Goglia deftly injects loads of laughs into Maureen’s surreal performance-protest-piece “Over The Moon”, skillfully knowing which elements to play up, which to let speak for themselves in order to maximize the rib-tickling potential of this macabre-but-marvelous little absurdity. Meanwhile, in the role of “Joanne”, Amber Mercomes enjoys several occasions to showcase both her own comedic capabilities as well as her considerable vocal prowess. Her phone-booth ‘serenade’, “We’re OK” is a hilarious highlight in the first act, while “Take Me Or Leave Me” is still another first-rate duet in which both ladies give ample exhibition of their melodiously-matched singing mastery—even prompting spontaneous cheers from opening night’s audience.
“I should tell you—I should tell you” this “Rent” is worth paying (–attention to) for anyone who remembers their first time falling in love, struggling to find their voice, or who understands that really, there is “no day but today”. Having opened on Saturday, October 24th 2015, “Rent” will run through Sunday, November 15, 2015 at “The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts” located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd in La Mirada, California. Show-times are 7:30 pm on Wednesdays & Thursdays; 8:00 pm on Fridays; 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm on Saturdays, with matinees on Sundays at 2:00 pm. (Special “Talkbacks” with the cast and creative team will be held after the performance on Wednesday, October 28 and Wednesday, November 11.) Tickets can be purchased on-line at the La Mirada Theatre’s website located at www.lamiradatheatre.com , or by calling the “La Mirada Theatre Box Office” at (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 (Student, Senior and Group discounts are available for all performances.)
Production Stills By Jason Niedle, Courtesy Of David Elzer At Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) McCoy-Rigby Entertainment And “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts”; Special Thanks To David Elzer, Tom McCoy, Cathy Rigby, Richard Israel, Dana Solimando And To The Cast & Crew Of “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” & McCoy-Rigby Entertainment’s Production Of “Rent” For Making This Story Possible