‘Rent’ at Montgomery College

Director David Gram has handed his audiences quite a treat with this faithful adaptation of the ground-breaking Jonathan Larson musical. Working with Music Director Jonathan Tuzman and Choreographer Sandra Atkinson, he has built a production that is as good a performance of Rent as this reviewer has seen since attending the original Broadway production. Embracing the piece as a memory of the days of the AIDS crisis, Gram directs it unabashedly as a period piece, recapturing the grunge, cynicism, social conflicts, and visible poverty of the 1990’s East Village.

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The cast, with some exceptions, harken back to the flavor and diversity of the original players. Elizabeth McFadden has organized the scenic environment differently (the band is in the pit rather than upstage, for instance), but without a diagram of the original Nederlander set, one can easily see the Chinese lantern, the glowing cross, the cages and metal stairways, and the rolling pay phone as a visual paradigm of exactly how Rent is supposed to look.

Lynn Joslin’s hazed red and purple beams, and centerstage specials, suggest the direct-address and concert style of the material. Peter Zakutansky’s costumes are reminiscent of the world of New York City in the mid-1990s (though he takes a few liberties in such moments as Angel’s Pussy Galore outfit, in which he substitutes the standard leather catsuit for a 1960s debutant ball image).

Sound Designer Mercer Aplin has the job of trying to balance the complex score with many types of voices, and unfortunately his work on opening night was only noticeable in the rare moments when the microphones encountered trouble or the levels failed to support the ensemble voices, causing crucial lines to be lost.

This is a complex show with many, many parts, and the audience understood that a truly flawless delivery of the material might in fact be impossible. Truly, the audience was a gracious host to the excellent production, hooting and hollering for specific performers in the many showcase moments of the piece, such as Lyndsay Rini’s (Maureen) delivery of the ever-popular “Over the Moon” protest performance.

 Awa Sal-Secka (Joanne) and Lyndsay Rini (Maureen). Photo courtesy of Montgomery College.
Awa Sal-Secka (Joanne)
and Lyndsay Rini (Maureen). Photo courtesy of Montgomery College.

Interestingly, in a generally strong cast, the standout performances come from the two smallest featured roles, with Rini (Maureen) and Awa Sal Secka (Joanne)’s “Take me or Leave Me” achieving borderline perfection, with deeply felt, subtle connections between the two performers complimenting a flawless execution of the music.

The whole cast does the production proud, with ceaseless energy and volume, passion and extraordinary moments of virtuosity, such as Stephen Greenhill’s bold, unconventional, and thrilling collapse as he portrays Collins in the final moments of his grief at the death of his soul-mate, Angel. Sometimes, these same strong actor/singers are guilty of substituting energy and passion for a connection to their character’s immediate purpose, and fall into the trap of emoting sadness or rage, but these moments are few and far between. As this is an academic production, it is meant to teach actors the techniques of the profession, and this cast succeeds in showcasing professional skills far more often than they stumble into showing-off feelings.

Much of the casting seems to have been done according to type, with actors like Jacob Meile (Roger) looking every bit the pretty-boy frontman Roger calls himself and Greenhill having the presence and offbeat intensity of a lover and a philosopher, with an appropriately soulful singing voice. What is perhaps more interesting are the ways in which the performers bring their own unique elements to the role. Jason Guerrero’s Mark has a coolness and an emcee energy that is unusual for the part, contrasting with Meile’s thin-voiced, generally shy Roger. Solomon Parker, in what is usually the least likable character in the piece, Benny, plays him honest and connected, portraying a man trying to help his ungrounded artist friends, rather than playing his role as symbol of the corrupting influence of wealth.

Rachel Johnson (Mimi) and David Singleton (Angel) have two of the most challenging parts, being handed multiple songs with both intense choreography and vocal demands, and they rise to these challenges, even though it is clear at times that Singleton is the stronger dancer where Johnson is more experienced in vocals. The ensemble cast is at its best in the many brief solo parts. When the actress portraying Alexi Darling (The program did not list the actress and this role) tries to recruit Mark to Buzzline, her sickeningly sweet delivery of the notes is almost deliciously terrifying. Unfortunately, there were some missed harmonies and false starts in the group ensemble numbers on opening night. “Will I” and “Seasons of Love” are two of the most beautiful songs in the score and they deserve more precise attention than they received.

Roger Serenades Mimi: Roger (Jake Meile), and Mimi (Rachel Johnson). Background (from left) Mark (Jason Guerrero), Collins (Stephen Greenhill), Joanne (Awa Sal Secka), and Maureen (Lyndsay Rini). Photo courtesy of Montgomery College.
Roger Serenades Mimi: Roger (Jake Meile), and Mimi (Rachel Johnson).
Background (from left) Mark (Jason Guerrero), Collins (Stephen Greenhill), Joanne (Awa Sal Secka), and Maureen (Lyndsay Rini). Photo courtesy of Montgomery College.

With that said, there are so many exceptional moments, from the gorgeously intimate performance of “Without You” by Meile and Rini, the soulful turn of the female soloist in “Seasons of Love,” the amusingly and curiously sexy rendition of “Tango Maureen” by Guerrero and the production’s consistent scene-stealer, Secka, and the scintillating choreography of “Out Tonight,” that every attendee is sure to have enough to enjoy in a generally terrific night of theatre.

For an excellent, entertaining, visually appealing, and vocally rich production of Jonathan Larson’s popular musical, Rent, do not miss this performance at Montgomery College.

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Rent plays through March 1, 2015 at The Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center on the Rockville Campus of Montgomery College – 51 Mannakee Street. in Rockville, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or online.

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