Review: ‘Rent’ at Rockville Musical Theatre

Jonathan Larson’s sudden death the night before Rent’s off-Broadway premiere is one of theater’s most heart-breaking events. Larson never got to see his only show move to Broadway, win the 1996 Tony Awards for best book, best score and best musical, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Larson’s tale of a group of misfit artists struggling to survive in a late 20th Century New York City neighborhood permeated by poverty and HIV has become a part of the Broadway lexicon and continues to be one of the most beloved musicals of recent decades.

Director Rochelle Horn and Choreographer Stephanie Miller put together a visually enthralling and fast-paced production of Rent for Rockville Musical Theatre that opened last night at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville.

The show opens in the squalid apartment of Mark and Roger, two young artists played by Brett Harwood and Kevin Belanger. The show’s opening number “Rent,” performed by Harwood and Belanger with excellent input from the ensemble, sets us firmly in the world of urban poverty, angst and rebellion.

The cast of 'RENT.' Photo courtesy of Rockville Musical Theatre.

The cast of ‘RENT.’ Photo courtesy of Rockville Musical Theatre.

Rent piles on the colorful New York City characters and we are soon introduced to Angel, a drag queen living with HIV; Tom Collins, an anarchist philosophy professor; Joanne, the Harvard educated girlfriend to Mark’s ex Maureen; Benny, a former friend who sold-out and married rich; and Mimi, a troubled young drug addict.

Solid performances were given all around by this large ensemble cast. Brett Harwood was perfectly cast as Mark Cohen with his teddy bear attitude and his adorable sweater vibe. Kevin Belanger was at his best in his ballad “One Song Glory” and whenever interacting with Mimi brought out his tortured soul. Jesse Saywell, as Angel, displayed great timing, rhythm and rap skills in his big number “Today 4 U,” and strong vocal skills throughout the show.

As Tom Collins, David Robinson’s booming bass voice soared in a soulful rendition of “I’ll Cover You (reprise),” and Jon Perry strutted around the stage as the newly wealthy turncoat Benjamin Coffin III who displayed his status by obnoxiously wearing sunglasses even in the dark.

Aimee Santone exuded sex appeal the moment she stepped onstage as Mimi Marquez, an HIV-stricken, drug addicted burlesque dancer singing the seductive “Light My Candle.” The chemistry between her and Roger (Belanger) was consistently terrific. Ms. Santone gave another knockout performance in Mimi’s show-stopping song “Out Tonight,” singing and dancing like someone very comfortable in her own skin, which is good because she was showing a lot of it.

Much of Act I focuses on characters preparing to attend Maureen’s night of performance art. In one of the show’s funnier numbers, Mark and Joanne (played with a strong voice and evocative facial expressions by Rikki Howie Lacewell) share a humorous duet and dance sequence in “Tango Maureen” as ex-boyfriend and current girlfriend discuss the drama they endure for this woman. But who is this mysterious Maureen who is constantly talked about but who still hasn’t appeared as we near the end of Act I? After all this build up, she needs to be something special, and she is. Viki Nova takes the stage to perform the much discussed protest art piece “Over the Moon,” and her energy is infectious. The audience was jolted into laughter at Maureen’s fumbling attempts at serious social commentary via an avant-garde performance derived from the children’s rhyme “Hey, Diddle, Diddle.”

Sadly, the energy fizzled at just the wrong time in the Act I finale, “La Vie Bohème.” This is one of Rent’s most beloved tunes and an anthem “to anything taboo” and should be performed with reckless abandon. Somehow, the energy that the cast maintained throughout Act I disappeared for this song. Maybe it was the barely audible rock band hidden away beneath the stage that caused a lackluster performance by the cast but I would encourage the band to crank up the volume and the cast to let loose on this very fun number.

The show found itself again as Act II opened with “Seasons of Love.” This song was a clear crowd favorite and you could hear fond sighs as the opening notes were played. The ensemble sang with perfect harmony and the two soloists Robin Samek and Rob Milanic did excellent jobs and received deserved applause.

Unfortunately, Act II was plagued by technical difficulties including missed lighting cues and sound difficulties that made some of the lyrics difficult to understand. Again, the band (comprised of Michael Schoolden and Phillip Taylor on electric guitars, Meagan Frame on electric bass, Nicolette Zillich on percussion, and John A. Marlowe on keyboard) sounded like it was playing from behind a closed door which really took the “rock” out of rock opera. I am sure Sound Designer Matt Mills and Lighting Designer James Robertson will work out these kinks as the show continues its run.

The set, designed by veteran DC Set Designer Maggie Modig, created four levels on the stage which was perfect for this ensemble piece in which several groupings of characters are often onstage at the same time acting out separate scenes. The action flowed easily between the downstage outdoor street set and upstage apartment scenes. A table in Mark and Roger’s apartment often became a stage upon a stage for cast member to perform on – a metaphor for the small stage on which these forgotten people’s lives were playing out. I do feel, however, that the set design was too sanitized in its depiction of squalid, urban New York. These people are squatters in a building where a garbage can filled with burning newspapers is the only source of heat. You should be able to smell the garbage on the street, see the grime on the walls.

Lee Michele Rosenthal did an excellent job with the costumes. Mark was adorable in his sweater and glasses, Mimi was a total vixen, Angel a stunning Christmas drag queen and Roger epitomized the 90s punk look with his tight plaid pants, doc martens and black leather jacket. A Keith Haring sweatshirt even made a brief appearance to which I gave a private round of applause.

Rent is in many ways an homage to New York City. Say what you will about the people of New York: They may be smelly or sensational; crazy or creative but they are never, ever boring and neither is Rockville Musical Theatre’s production of Rent.

Viva La Vie Bohème!

Running Time: Approximately two hours, plus a 15-minute intermission.

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Rent plays through July 24, 2016 at Rockville Musical Theatre performing at The F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre at the Rockville Civic Center – 630 Edmonston Drive, in Rockville, MD. For tickets, call (240) 314-8690, purchase them at the box office, or online.

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