‘Rent’ at American University by Bev Fleisher

THREE AND A HALF STARS
Jonathan Larson, who wrote the original book, music and lyrics for Rent, summarized the musical in one sentence: ‘Rent is about a community and about celebrating life in the face of death and AIDS at the turn of the century. Prior to the beginning of Rent at American University, cast members emphasized that their rendition placed emphasis on community. This echoed Carl Menninger’s ‘Director’s Note’ in the program.

Photo by Murugi Thande.

Carter Lowe (Mark). Photo by Murugi Thande.

The talented ensemble provided the strongest sense of community in the production especially in their beautiful renditions of  “Will I Lose My Dignity?” and “Seasons of Love.” Ryan Burke (Roger) and Julie Nolan (Mimi) shone in their vocals of “One Song Glory,” “Light My Candle,’ and together on “Without You,’ and in their character development. And Nolan was especially effective in capturing the essence of Mimi.

There were some wonderful performances, although at my performance there was chemistry lacking among the leads. Claxton Rabb III, as Angel, provided the requisite sass and added a bit of a bluesy sound to “Today 4 U.” His strongest vocals came at the end of the evening in “Without You,” primarily a duet between Angel and his lover Tom Collins (Bryce Sulecki) immediately after Angel died. The other memorable aspect of Rabb’s performance was his mastery of sky high white patent leather platform shoes in which he moved with ease. Costume Designer Andrew Stone’s talent was evident throughout, and was best flaunted in those boots and the costuming for Mimi.

Roxy Reynolds (Maureen), was outstanding in delivering her performance piece at a protest against the closing of a park devoted to the arts. Unfortunately, this spark did not carry over to her relationship with Joanne (Niya Norwood). Both  Carter Lowe (Mark) and Norwood had their finest moment when dancing to “The Tango Maureen,” choreographed by Joshua Midgett, who also served as Assistant Director. Keeping Benjamin Coffin III (Aaron Porter) elevated relative to the rest of the cast, as was his economic status, was also a great move by Midgett.

Some of the best work of the evening was done offstage by the terrific band  led by Music Director John-Michael d’Haviland, which featured d’Haviland on keyboards, Matt Horanzy (guitar), Jarret Murray (bass), and Jim Hofmann on drums/percussion. They provided just the right level of support.

Photo by  Murugi Thande.

Ryan Burke (Roger) and Julie Nolan (Mimi). Photo by Murugi Thande.

Ryan Burke (Roger) and Julie Nolan (Mimi)

Scenic Designer John Jeteer contributed innovative seating and staging in the small black box theater.The floor of the black box theater was divided into four squares with ample walkways separating the squares. Additional props, such as seats, benches and tables, were brought in and out of the aisles. Most of the actors time was spent on the floor, rather than the stage in an attempt to bring the audience into the community. Sound Designer Chris Alires did much to integrate the band with the action and make sure that the vocals were crisp and clear despite the absence of individual mics for the actors.

Despite action occurring in many places, sometimes simultaneously, Lighting Designer Xena Petkansas used her skill to bring the audiences attention to the appropriate place of focus. Choreographers Joshua Midgett and Rob Hunter made sure that lead actors and the ensemble moved easily around the theater even when heading in different directions.

The undergraduate student production of Rent at American University gave each cast member a theatrical workout and a way to sharpen their skills. It was a great opportunity for all, and featured many freshmen and sophomores.

I was impressed by Director Carl Menningers choice to allow the cast to use  their natural voices rather than being miced, a smart way of adding a new dimension to each actor’s experience. It was probably a new experience for much of the audience, as well.

Running Time:Two hours and forty-five minutes, with one intermission.

1604927_10152180797221306_322183864_nRent plays through March 1, 2014 at the Studio Theatre in The Katzen Arts Center at American University – 4400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets online. Most of the run is already sold out.

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