“How do you document real life, when real life is getting more like fiction every day?!” sings Mark, a young documentarian at the outset of “Rent”— Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning rock opera/cultural phenomenon. The latest offering from the “Kentwood Players” housed at the landmark “Westchester Playhouse” in Los Angeles California, “Rent” features a book, music, and lyrics by Larson with additional lyrics by Billy Aronson. This new production is directed and choreographed by Marcus S. Daniel, with Musical Direction by Gabrielle Maldonado. For far too long and by far too many, “Rent” has often thought of as a remnant of the past—recalling bygone tragedies which, thanks to copious medical breakthroughs, aren’t as pressing today. However, given some brilliant directorial insights, this restaging is inundated with a brand-new vitality and relevancy. In fact, the issues raised here are strangely just as pertinent today (–but maybe in a slightly different manner.) Consider how very recently the world has been rocked by another ‘plague’, while locally, homelessness (–and homeless encampments and tent cities,) have been making the headlines, while if anything, Transgender rights has taken on even more significance than when the show first bowed.
Based on Puccini’s iconic opera “La Boheme”, “Rent” is a musical updating set in New York’s infamous “Alphabet City”–a ‘bohemian’ neighborhood in New York’s East Village, at the height of the AIDS pandemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Unfolding over the tumultuous course of “a year in the life of friends’, it explores the relationships of a hapless band of young artists, musicians and activists, all struggling with love, loss, hope, betrayal and the ever-encroaching specter this dread (and largely fatal at the time) disease has on all of them. The story follows “Roger Davis”, an HIV-Positive would-be musician, who falls in love with “Mimi Márquez”, an exotic dancer who also has HIV. Roger’s roommate, “Mark Cohen” is an aspiring filmmaker and the ex-boyfriend of “Maureen Johnson”, a coquettish bisexual performance artist, whose current flame, “Joanne Jefferson”, is a lawyer. There’s also Roger and Mark’s occasional roomie “Tom Collins”, a former NYU professor who meets “Angel Dumott Schunard”, a transgender Puerto Rican Street-drummer who also has AIDS, while “Benjamin Coffin III”, is a former friend of Mark, Roger and Collins who is now their landlord and wants to evict them. Most live in the dilapidated (and slated for the wrecking ball) ‘11th Street Lofts’ building, which “Benny” hopes to tear down to erect a modern cyber-café in its place. At the launch of the show, the full company ascends the stage for the titular opening, in which they reveal that it’s a frost-bitten New York City Christmas eve, 1989—with sparse to be very jolly about. Act Two opens on “New Year’s Eve”, as they all anticipate a new year and a new decade: “It’s gonna be a Happy New Year” they all carol semi-hopefully.
Better paced and not as relentlessly hard-driving as previous versions, Mr. Daniel’s direction makes excellent use of the economy of “The Westchester Playhouse’s” intimate playing space. Likewise, he wisely treats “Angel’s” ultimate demise with more (–and more fitting–) solemnity than in preceding productions–including the Broadway original. (Granted, this former, more ‘affable’ approach may have been due to the times surrounding the show’s preliminary run, wherein sickness and death were very much a reality for audiences then, so to see it depicted the producers believed it would be best to handle it with a bit of levity—even if now it seems very misplaced.) Fittingly instead, he gives us a pretty devastating segment, which is why it works so well here. Mark’s final ‘Documentary’ which serves as the show’s finale is cleverly comprised of actual rehearsal footage—but hang on for one last surprise in the closing moments that bring the goings-on more authentically back to the operatic source material —yet more proof of just how innovative this production is. As a Choreographer, Daniel achieves as much–and with the same lofty level of ingenuity. While “Rent” could never sincerely be deemed a ‘Dancer’s Show’, he nevertheless manages to interject some fashionable-to-funky maneuvers throughout. Conceivably the primest of these examples is the big “La Vie Boheme” intermezzo which winds-up the first act. Staged as a groovy kind of free-for-all with jubilant dancing on tables as our heroes celebrate a big victory against ‘the establishment’, their pulsating and quick-cadenced exuberance (–not to mention sheer energy) is contagious–go ahead, just try not to tap along! Of course, that’s bound to happen now and again with this show—you may even find yourself singing (or at least mouthing the lyrics,) right along with the performers–and in the most unexpected places! Prior to this, there’s “The Tango Maureen”—which arises as a terse duet between Mark and Joanne, before “Maureen” herself joins them (albeit in ‘spirit’) and the action expands into a suave little Tango for three!
An ensemble piece if ever there was one, Garrett LaSource is “Roger Davis”. LaSource has some palpable vocal firepower which he validates right off with his stanzas in the inaugural number, “Rent”. Immediately following he impresses all over again with the pensive “One Song Glory” which provides us with Roger’s backstory: How he came ‘The Big Apple’ with dreams of becoming a rock star and songwriter, only to find heroin, poverty, and AIDS instead. “Time flies; time dies” he ruefully croons. This immediately segues into several dynamite duets—the next, the sultry “Light My Candle” when ‘Mimi’ initially appears out of the darkness. Demonstrating how well matched these two singers are, rest assured, here is a dual win for both. Delaney Holliday is “Mimi Marquez”: “They say I have the best ass below 14th Street,” she teases Roger upon their meeting. Ms. Holliday brings a terrific ‘intimate’ quality to her song stylings and that serves her in great stead in her various melodies–especially “Without You” and “I Should Tell You” (“I’m looking for someone whose baggage matches my own” she purrs to Roger in Act One.) “Without You”–hailed by many to be the score’s most distinguished song, sees “Mimi” swathed in pink light that enhances her soulful delivery. Indeed, this is probably her grandest moment, while in the background we play witness to “Angel’s” worsening condition. As it becomes a duet (once “Roger” joins in) it gives the goings-on a calmer, more empathetic axis for which to turn on before events really start to accelerate.
Every bit as superlative in his role is Logan Rice as “Mark Cohen”. With his ever-present camera in hand, he is our guide to this curious and compelling world—a latter-day “Virgil” (or perhaps more aptly, a new-wave answer to Rod Serling.) Rice does a laudable job in the opening verses of “What You Own (Livin’ In America)”, conferring on us some nice, easy-going harmony as “Roger” antes up with some thrilling ‘money-notes’ of his own. It’s not as biting or intense as one may be used to but remains a pleasing rendition notwithstanding. Of comparable importance (and formidable charm) is Kit DeZolt as “Angel Dumott Schunard”. In many ways, “Angel” is the emotional ‘core’ of the entire piece—he’s unquestionably the most sympathetic and generous of heart. DeZolt also thoroughly dazzles with some breathtaking moves—among them some stunning high-kicks, staggering cartwheels, and eye-popping splits–which he handily exhibits during “Angel’s” introductory rap, “Today For You, Tomorrow For Me”. (Count this one a definite crowd pleaser early on!) By the same token, Emilie Mirvis too, makes a similar impact as “Maureen”. She proves delightful as the focus of ‘the Tango Maureen”, but the prime ‘focal point’ of Maureen’s contribution to the plot is her Avant-Garde “Art Installation” piece “Over The Moon”, which has been tailored to be less off-beat and more of a seductive divertissement by emphasizing its musicality over any eccentric special effects. (Oh, they’re there in places, but aren’t as overpowering as so often is the case.) Refreshingly, this interpretation makes some semblance of sense (as opposed to in other productions) that has her rhythmically assisted by two ‘back-up’ girls. It even affords for some nifty audience participation.
Also worthy of acclaim are the ‘partner’ characters–those who arguably serve the story best by ‘reflecting’ those other protagonists whom they are directly involved with. Donald Riddle is “Tom Collins”–an out-of-work Philosophy Professor and Anarchist whom “Angel” ‘rescues’ after seeing him mugged on Christmas eve. Riddle is himself in fine voice, which he puts to splendid use with his portions in the dreamy “Santa Fe” and the overtly romantic “I’ll Cover You”. Then there is Jalana Phillips as “Joanne Jefferson”. A lawyer who’s a bit more settled, “Joanne” is slightly older than the others (“she’s in her early 30’s as opposed to the rest of the group who are in their 20’s.) Ms. Phillips possesses the strong presence this role requires—making her a good contrast to the ephemeral “Maureen”, despite this ushering in an abundance of struggles in their relationship. Although as a singer, “Joanne” is more a peripheral voice, when Ms. Phillips is given any solo refrains, she absolutely electrifies with them! Such is the case with “Take Me As I Am”—a lovers quarrel set to music between “Joanne” and “Maureen”, who match one another note for note, breath for breath and power for power. It’s a smooth, jivey interlude with just a touch of Gospel, which ranks as a bona-fide highlight after intermission, and a dual triumph for both Ms. Phillips and Ms. Mirvis, Meanwhile, “Benjamin Coffin III” (a.k.a ‘Benny’) is portrayed by Micah K. Blanks. A once-struggling artist who ‘made good’ and is now the landlord, Blanks gives us a genuinely genial presence–regardless how the others try to paint him. Plus, he has a strong, resonant voice he can lay claim to, which he expertly showcases in numerous songs—including the boisterous curtain-raiser, as well as “Seasons Of Love” and the equally rollicking “What You Own”.
Special mention also has to be given to Jayla Bryant and Elijah Green, who contribute their potent singing talents to a multitude of group endeavors, but particularly stand out with their individual solo phrases in “Seasons Of Love”. Not to be overlooked either are the multi-talented 10-member ensemble who furnishes some top-notch harmony at regular intervals while taking on many supporting parts. “Seasons Of Love”—perhaps the best-known song from the score and which opens the second act, is certainly one of the most impactful in the show. Infused with some sumptuous harmonizing gratis the company en masse, is it ever worth waiting for! So too, the sequence with the HIV/AIDS/ARC support group (called “Life Support”) is touchingly staged and presents some lovely harmony, in one of the most poignant themes that shape and inform this production. (This is the kind of anthem that lovingly stays with you long after the curtain has been wrung down.) In the reprise, members re-enter through the whole auditorium, making an emotional impact as they intone their worst fears: “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow–from this nightmare?”
As one might guess, a show like this thrives the most if the environment the creators are striving to construct is powerful and immersive enough, and this is where the technical elements come in. The major thing that greets audiences upon entry is the colorful graffiti-strewn backdrop from Set Designer, Shawn Summerer. Best described as ‘colorful chaos’, while waiting for the show to get off and running, it’s even fun to checkout his ‘graffiti” to see what you can find. Amid the more astute scribblings you’ll spy is “Dukakis 88”, ‘We The People—Won’t Go!” and a couple of vintage “Silence Equals Death” posters rear center-stage—there’s even a caricature of the Pink Panther (–offbeat but still effective symbolism all!) This bold, near-kaleidoscopic motif is complimented and advanced thanks to Michael Tover’s vibrant, polychromatic lighting design that has many of the tuneful undertakings concluded with the stage bathed in red (almost as if this is the stage’s ‘back-to-one’ signal.) There’s even an episode early in the proceedings where he makes use of handheld digital ‘flashlights’ which the cast ignite to see them through to the final ride out of the title melody after the lights suddenly ‘go out’ (wryly indicating how our heroes can’t even pay for electricity, let alone any “Rent”.) Meanwhile, Michael Mullen’s vivid “Post 80’s shabby” costumes are themselves anything but drab—including Mimi’s skin-tight vinyl ensemble she sports for “Take Me Out Tonight” (–then again, anything she wears is nothing short of a WOW!) There are also the matching bovine-spotted leotards modeled by Maureen’s back-up group—to say nothing of Angel’s spangled silver high-heel doc martens which could be worth the price of a ticket alone!
“Forget regret, or life is yours to miss”—and you positively DON’T want to miss this lively show! Having opened May 12th, “Rent” is set to play through June 17th, 2023, at “The Westchester Playhouse” located at 8301 Hindry Avenue in Los Angeles CA. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. (Beginning May 20th , additional Saturday Matinees at 2:00 PM will ensue and continue through the rest of the run.) Tickets may be obtained online at www.kentwoodplayers.org , by emailing the box office at firstname.lastname@example.org , or calling (310) 645-5156. (Group rates for 10 or more are available and can be arranged with the box office; All box office emails and messages will be answered to confirm your ticket order.) Discounts for Seniors and Students are also available for this engagement. (Please Note; There will also be a pay-what-you-can performance on Saturday, May 20 at 2:00 PM with reservations recommended but not required.)
Production Stills by Gloria Plunkett, Courtesy Of “The Kentwood Players” www.kentwoodplayers.org ; Special Thanks To Shari Barrett, Marcus S. Daniels, Gabrielle Maldonado, Alison Boole, Elizabeth Bouton Summerer, And To The Cast And Crew Of “The Kentwood Players” 2023 Production Of “Rent” For Making This Story Possible.