By Dale King
Student actors at Florida Atlantic University have tapped a Broadway blockbuster –– the breakthrough musical Rent — to wrap up their Summer Repertory Theatre season.
Playing through July 31 at Studio One on FAU’s Boca Raton campus, Jonathan Larson’s Rent is based loosely on Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera, La Bohème. The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, which ran on Broadway for 12 years, was nominated for 10 Tony Awards and won five, including Best Musical.
Rent tells the story of impoverished young artists doing their best to survive in a dilapidated neighborhood of Lower Manhattan’s East Village.
Student performers, director Kevin Covert and a multitude of production folk spent exhaustive hours crafting the dialogue and songs and creating a detailed set that portrays the seediness of a niche New York neighborhood circa 1996. The building facades are tattered and tawdry, right down to the boarded-up doorways, distant New York skyline, steep, twisting stairways and torn posters plastered to grimy brick walls.
Overall, the production is a top-notch, high-energy performance with players pouring considerable talent into every moment. Larson packed more than 40 songs into a show that runs two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission. Many songs are tough rockers that force performers to stretch their voices to levels approaching screams. The storied ballads and other songs trimmed with harmonies are generally good, but several slide noticeably off-key.
Rent does prove itself to be a show for all ages. While it was spawned in the days when the AIDS/HIV crisis was at its peak, the show “was brave and bold enough” to deal not only with the often-lethal virus, said director Covert, but “it also examined important social issues like homophobia, substance abuse and multiculturalism.”
All those topics — and more — are still on the front burner in our lives today. Replace AIDS with COVID and Rent becomes a template for the early years of the 2020 decade.
he musical’s action begins on Christmas Eve — normally a happy time — and the scattering of tiny decorative lights emphasizes the harsh reality of young lives in an artist ghetto. Some glumly sung holiday tunes show up throughout the score.
One thing is on the minds of those on stage — rent, how to pay it or how to avoid it. The tune, “Rent,” sung by Mark (Blaine DeBerry), Roger (Eric Fredrickson), Tom Collins (John Dalton Logan) and others in the company is a heart-wrenching piece that sets the stage for a play depicting folks in trying times and cold temperatures.
Benjamin Coffin III (Jovan Hayes) emerges as the villain. Once an impoverished resident of the community himself, he now owns the main residential building — and insists the rent be paid. Coffin’s portrayal of a turncoat rat is sinfully seedy. DeBerry and Fredrickson, whose characters are roommates, also excel in their performances as artists on a tough road.
Love and music manage to flourish in this downbeat clime while the neighborhood’s denizens hone their trades. Mark records goings-on with a camera, hoping to create a documentary. Roger tunes an electric guitar repeatedly and laments he has crafted only a single hit. (“One Song Glory”). Others encourage him to write more, but he seems jaded and uninterested.
Meanwhile, Angel (Paolo Pineda), a cross-dresser, rescues a wounded Tom Collins (“You Okay, Honey?”) and they fall in love. Roger hooks up with Mimi (Dayana Morales), a drug-addicted stripper, whose feelings are affectionately shown and shared in the tune, “Light My Candle.” Her “Out Tonight” number is a seductive Act I treat.
Music certainly enhances the show. “Tango Maureen” features Mark and Joanne (Cassidy Joseph) in an impromptu twirl, under a streetlight, in the cold chill. “Santa Fe” finds Tom, Angel, Mark and the ensemble dreaming of opening a restaurant in New Mexico.
Act I concludes with “La Vie Bohème,” an elegant, extensive, full-tilt celebration that pulls everyone onto the stage just before intermission.
They return as Act II begins with perhaps the best-known song in the show, the touching “Seasons of Love,” a tune that beseeches people to measure life in terms of love. (The song includes the familiar line, “Six hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes … how do you measure, measure a year?”)
The tune is reprised several times as the play, which itself covers a year of bohemian life, approaches its conclusion.
Every performer finds a comfortable niche and the director manages to keep the crowded action on stage moving briskly. Costumes, lighting and sound combine to make the set stand out more convincingly. Eric Alsford brings his professional touch to the music track.
Morales plays Mimi as both strong and vulnerable. Logan’s Tom Collins and Pineda’s Angel are endearing, funny and tearfully bittersweet. (Pineda excelled as Eugene in FAU’s just-concluded production, Brighton Beach Memoirs.)
Harvey’s Maureen and her girlfriend, Joanne, portrayed by Joseph, are strong-willed and fist-tough, but they’re proficient enough to instill some comic relief into this otherwise bleak performance.
And as if to emphasize director Covert’s assessment that “Rent celebrates humanity and the human spirit,” the finale triggers the full audience to rise to their feet in an ovation of gratitude.
Rent continues through July 31 at the Marleen Forkas Studio One Theatre on FAU’s Boca Raton campus at 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Tickets available at fauevents.com or by calling 561-297-6124.