Saturday, July 25, 2009

Greendale Community Theatre's RENT: The Musical

By Russ Bickerstaff
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STUFFY BACKGROUND CRITICISM

At it’s core, the idea for Billy Aronson and Jonathan Larson’s 1993 musical RENT isn’t entirely bad. Doing a modern interpretation of Puccini’s La boheme set in modern-day New York could, in theory, bring the unique concerns of a culture “on the edge of the millennium” into a very contemporary exploration of the life of young, urban countercultural artists, hipsters and intellectuals. Aronson’s desire to present the whole thing against the coarseness of modern day New York is an interesting idea.

The problem with RENT is that it’s a Broadway-style musical. The polished perfection of an art form the idealizes life (and really, who hasn’t waned to sing something perfect and passionate complete with choreography and musical accompaniment when threatened with eviction?) is intrinsically at odds with the gritty, urban, early ‘90’s bohemian artist culture it’s trying to present. The resulting musical feels like a cheap mockery of itself and its subject matter with a few catchy, admiitedly heartfelt songs. And don’t even get me started on the plot, which is exceptionally bad.


The prospect of a community theatre production of the musical, however, shows a great deal of potential. The raw energy of people exploring the stage for the first time could, in theory, offset some of the artificiality of the Broadway musical format and get at the heart of what makes the milieu of RENT so interesting to begin with. Impressively ambitious on a number of different levels, the Greendale Community Theatre production of the musical delivers on a fair amount of this potential.

THE SHOW


Walking into the Greendale High School Auditiorium, the scope of the production’s ambition is apparent. Modeled after the set of the Broadway show, the Brain Bzdawka/Patrick Doran set has a very studied grungy urban feel to it. The band plays behind a chain link fence. There’s a railing going-up to a second floor landing, plastic chairs and cheap tables. And there are several video monitors . . . beaming with the musical’s logo.

Robert Postotnik, who did extensive work on the production, opens the show by way of introduction in the role of filmmaker Mark Cohen.  Cohen’s performance as Mark really shines in very precise comic moments, but the deeper, more illusive drama of the character (which would feel a bit cliché in any production) never quite resolves into sharp, compelling focus. Postotnik performs his own choreography with a wiry, thin precision that most of the rest of the cast is able to keep up with. Postotnik also contributed video segments which appear on the screens throughout the production to help set mood and tone.

After Mark’s introduction and the inevitable launch into the title song, the musical is well under way. The gritty imperfections of a cast just getting to know its way around a stage largely work to the production’s favor here. The towering Roger Davis has an aggressive anger about him that adds a very organic feel to the love story between he and Mimi. Stephanie Staszak’s performance as Mimi takes a little while to settle-in. The opening scene between her and Davis is a bit weak. Staszak doesn’t quite have the kind of weak, shakiness that James Jones describes when they first meet. Staszak doesn’t quite manage to overcome a sweetness about her in that first scene and comes across as a strikingly healthy drug addict early on. As the performance progresses, her charm settles-in and the love story between James and Mimi gains a great degree of emotional weight. Yes, there are points in the show where the music doesn’t quite come together and there are areas of extremely polished precision, but this production really thrives on emotion. Robby Schuettpelz is particularly powerful exuding grief as Tom Collins when the man he loves dies. 

THE COMPARISON


There’s a weird prejudice about community theatre that people really need to get beyond. Community theatre is not bad simply because it is community theatre. I caught the National Tour of the show when it came to Milwaukee in October of ’07. I had a lot more fun at the Greendale production for a number of reasons.

First of all—the touring Broadway production had a smooth precision to it that moved from song to song with the poise of theatre professionals. Which was exceedingly boring. The occasional imbalance and discord from the GCT production gave the kind of organic feel to the show that made it all the more appealing. This is not to say that ALL the imperfections were working in favor of the production. The body mics on the performers (and the sound in general) popped, dropped out, and on one occasion buzzed . . . there’s really no way to do RENT without amplified sound, there’s no getting around it. It was a major distraction at key moments. The one favorable bit that came out of this happened halfway into the initial meeting between Mimi and James. Staszak’s mic cut out and she had the opportunity to do roughly half of her end of the Light My Candle duet acoustically. Staszak didn’t slow down a bit . . . almost instantly adjusting to the lack of amplification by adjusting her volume. Admittedly it's a completely different set-up with the big guys and they have numerous other concerns, but the sound cuts out at some point in every touring Broadway show I've ever seen. And I've never seen a professional touring actor effectively adjust for the mic drop-out. Not once. Staszak's got potential.

Then there’s the physical end of things . . .the US Tour of RENT is a Broadway in a box affair . . .performed here at the Milwaukee Theatre with the kind of distance from the actors that eliminates a lot of the appeal of live theatre to begin with—(the standard touring Broadway complaint.) While far from being a studio theatre production, the GCT production brings the show much closer to the audience.

And then there’s the community theatre aspect . . . the audience is that much more connected to a production when it’s local people. During intermission, a woman sitting next to me said that she was Robert Postotnik’s neighbor. I also overheard conversation from parents and friends of the cast, one of whom was going to see his daughter in nearly every performance.

There’s a kind of energy there that you don’t get with a group of people paying ridiculous prices for a touring Broadway show. People are more detached and disinterested and the actors can’t help but be affected by the energy in a room. The energy in the Greendale High School auditorium is amazing. Laura MacDonald’s performance as Maureen in Over The Moon was particularly memorable in this respect. Aided by clever little primitive animations on the video screen, MacDonald had the right kind of weird, exotic energy for the song—and even if the touring Broadway production had that kind of uniquely bizarre power to it, it didn’t elicit the kind of response from the audience that one got with the GCT. The theatre reverberated with the mooing of the audience—for a moment, the theatre felt like an alien landscape. The biggest hit of the musical—the one everyone knows--the one after intermission has a kind of genuine emotion on the stage and in the seats that I’ve rarely felt. I woke-up this morning with "125,600" running through my head this morning and oddly, I didn't mind . . .  

And now I’m going to stop talking about the show. I promise. At least, until next May when The Skylight Production hits the stage (providing things don’t completely fall apart with the company between now and then.) It should be an interesting contrast between the other two prodctions I’ve seen . . . 

The GCT’s production of RENT runs through August 1st at the Greendale High School Auditiorum.

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