By Bernie Crumn, Staff Writer
Jonathan Larson's popular rock musical RENT seems like the perfect show to perform at the university level. Raw love, rebellion and being true to oneself are themes that any college student can relate to. The Department of Drama and Dance premiered its production of RENT Friday, October 21. Catching the Saturday night performance, it became obvious to me that some poor performances were taking away from an otherwise solid production.
RENT explores the plight of several young adults who live in Manhattan's East Village. The musical expresses the anti establishment sentiments of the characters, as well as how they deal with love, loss and feelings of helplessness and uncertainty in their current situations. All of these emotions are captured and expressed by a soundtrack full of memorable rock songs that range from biting and angry to sweet and passionate. A motley crew of characters (which include an anarchist, a drag queen, a musician and an exotic dancer) adds to the shows likeability. What sets this show apart from many others is its willingness to explore taboo subjects; most prominent of these are sexual orientation, poverty and living with HIV. HIV is a particularly sensitive topic, but RENT takes great care to portray it with empathy.
One of the most impressive parts about this production is the set design, which captures the essence of counterculture with a nice blend of artistry and anarchy. The set is not a realistic depiction of the East Village. Instead, it embodies the mood of the area and also reflects the mindset of the characters. The choreography is appropriately raw and full of angst, adding to the feel of the show. Larson's music is adequately performed by the pit. They are able to quickly recover from any and all mishaps, be it technical or vocal, during the show.
The biggest disappointment is the vocal performances of some of the main cast. Poor projection, annunciation, and voice cracking are prevalent throughout much of the show. Voice cracking is something to be expected but the frequency with which it occurs proves that some of the performers are singing out of their ranges. All of this hinders the emotional reaction that is the intention of many of the songs. The development of the principle romantic relationships, most notably Roger and Mimi's, is affected by a lack of chemistry. The scenes that are meant to be intimate come off as forced and unfeeling. This proves highly detrimental since the romantic relationships are such a huge part of the shows overall effectiveness.
Some of the performances are terrific, going above and beyond expectations. Brittany Fuerstenberg is the obvious standout, who throws herself into the role of Maureen and gives an uninhibited and electrifying performance. She portrays the character, an eccentric performer, with no shame and is able to balance her unstable and questionable behavior with irresistible charm and likeability. Eileen Farley makes her presence known as Joanne, a lawyer and Maureen's girlfriend, playing her with power and authority. "Take me or Leave me", a duet by Joanne and Maureen, is executed beautifully by Farley and Fuerstenberg. As Tom Collins, James McGowan also shows wide range as a singer and performer. He is able to portray Collins as both the charismatic anarchist and the grief stricken lover with much ease and shares good chemistry with his onstage love interest (played by a very likeable Luigi Mondi). Another memorable moment in the show is its exceptional performance of "Seasons of Love" which is arguably the most popular number of the show. A few members of the chorus showcase their talents in very impressive solos during this number and others.