|Mark (Daniel Berryman) and Roger (Aaron C. Finley) in RENT at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Photo: Tracy Martin|
|Angel (Jerick Hoffer, center) and the company of RENT at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Photo: Mark Kitaoka|
|The company of RENT celebrates “La Vie Boheme” at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Photo: Mark Kitaoka|
More than fifteen years ago I began hearing raves about a Broadway musical called “Rent” because of my friendship with Steve Schalchlin, composer of another musical, “The Last Session,” which has many of the same fans. Living on the West Coast, I didn’t expect to be able to see it for ages, but the touring company brought it to Seattle’s Paramount Theatre. I was so very excited to go and so disappointed in the show. The sound was terrible. It was so painfully loud and distorted that I could not make out the lyrics, and since there is no spoken dialogue the lyrics are pretty much the whole damn show. I went home and borrowed a CD of the cast album and listened to it and thought, Ah hah! Now I know what all the fuss is about. The music was rocking, raw and in places unbelievably tender as the exuberant young cast sang about being young and poor and facing life and death at the end of the 20th century.
I didn’t get to see it again until 2010 when I reviewed it twice in one season, first at Tacoma Musical Playhouse and then at Capital Playhouse in Olympia. Both shows were great. They shared Best Musical honors with “Annie,” also at Capital Playhouse, in my Critic’s Choice column that year.
Now Seattle’s premiere musical theater, the 5th Avenue Theatre, is staging a new version of “Rent” with an all-local cast. We attended opening night and came away feeling as if for the first time we had witnessed something comparable to — or maybe even better than — what I had hoped to experience that first time back in the ’90s with “Rent” performed in a major performance space
Director Bill Berry made a point of casting young actors. In a program note he said that touring companies and many community theaters use 35-year-old actors even though the characters as written by Jonathan Larson are in their early 20s. Berry wanted to capitalize on that youthful energy with actors who are actually the ages they portray.
The cast is outstanding. My favorites were Aaron C. Finley as Roger and Naomi Morgan as Roger’s girlfriend, Mimi. Chemistry is overused as a term for the relationship between lovers on stage, but by God these two have it. From the electricity of their clashes to the tenderness of their longing for one another, they open up their hearts and share their pain with the audience, and they each have clear, strong voices that carry well on soft ballads and can be gritty on the hard-rocking songs. There is similar chemistry between Maureen (Ryah Nixon) and Joanne (Andi Alhadeff).
Berry’s casting decision brings up two interesting considerations. The first is that right here in the Puget Sound region we have a talent pool that, while not as deep, is just as talented as that in New York. There’s no need to go all the way across the country in search of talent.
The second consideration is how big a role expectations play in the enjoyment of a performance. For example, after seeing three staged performances and one film version of “Rent,” I expect certain characters, the drag queen Angel as a prime example, to look and act a certain way. In previous shows Angel was campier and so clearly a drag queen and so gay as to make Liberace look like Clint Eastwood. In this version, if you didn’t read the cast list or know in advance, you might think a woman was playing Angel. Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who played the part on Broadway and in the film version, is from the Dominican Republic. I don’t know if the character was originally written in as Latino person of color, but that’s how I picture him in my mind. Juan Torres-Falcón at Capital Playhouse and Thaddeus Wilson both fit that understanding on my part, and they each played it as high camp. Jerick Hoffer, who plays Angel at the 5th Avenue, wears a red-orange wig, has light skin and no visible trace of Latino cultural heritage. And he’s not so campy and I missed all the camp — even if it was a little too stereotypical. In other words, my expectations may have kept me from enjoying Hoffer’s performance as much as I should have. He’s very good.
Highlights are, of course, those musical numbers that have been most memorable over the decades (fulfillment of expectations again): the wonderfully playful “Tango Maureen,” Maureen’s “Over the Moon,” the rocking ensemble of “La Vie Boheme” with dancing on the tables and Maureen mooning Benny (Logan Benedict), the beautiful “Seasons of Love” at the opening of the second act, Roger and Mimi’s touching “Without You,” and the breathtaking “I’ll Cover You” by Tom Collins (Brandon O’Neill).
Two actors familiar to South Sound theater-goers appear in the ensemble: Casey Raiha, who has appeared in many shows at Harlequin and Capital Playhouse, and Antonia Darlene, a star in many, many musicals in Olympia and Tacoma. Although an unnamed character, Darlene stands out in two scenes, first as a homeless person confronting Mark (Daniel Berryman) and then on her electrifying solo on “Seasons of Love.”
The staging of this production is outstanding. The set by Martin Christoffel and the lighting by Tom Sturge, are both stunning. In light of my mention of sound problems when the touring company came to Seattle, I should also mention that sound designer Kai Harada did an excellent job.
WHEN: Tues.-Wed at 7:30 p.m., Thurs. and Sat. 2 and 8 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sun. 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. through Aug. 19
WHERE: The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Ave., Seattle
TICKETS: starting at $49
INFO: www.5thavenue.org or 888-5TH-4TIX or call the box office at 206-625-1900