Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009

RENT returns

Still Waiting For The Skylight's Production . . .

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Touring Broadway production of RENT made it into town again last night. I saw it some time ago when the production made it to the Milwaukee Theatre. I wasn’t all that impressed with it at the time. Shoot ahead to just a few months ago and I’m seeing a local production of it with the Greendale Community Theatre and I’m beginning to see the appeal. With the rough-cut grunge aesthetic it seems to be embracing (somewhat effectively) the musical can be a fun evening of musical theatre given the right production. Last night I had a chance to see the touring Broadway production and again I had a chance to see how this musical should NOT be done.

To be fair, the touring Broadway production of RENT is, in its current incarnation, a very tightly produced very smartly executed show. Adam Pascal reprises the role he originated, playing HIV-positive musician Roger Davis. There is little doubting Pascal’s talent. He has a hell of a voice and it comes through with remarkable passion in his performance of One Song Glory at the beginning of the show. It’s fascinating to see Anthony Rapp in the role of aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen, who sort of serves as the musical’s emotional center. Rapp is at his best here in those subtle dramatic moments that brilliantly set the mood for more than a few key scenes. The importance of Rapp’s talent for the subtle can not be overstated.

Rapp’s flair for bringing authentic emotion to the stage in a casual, unassuming way plays-up the rough-hewn, organic feel for the play that may be its only significant addition to the art form of the Broadway musical. The problem with much of the rest of the production is its lack of adherence to that aesthetic. It’s enjoyable to see a really well oiled, well-executed production of the musical, but the truly dramatic moments in the show—the organic connection between actors, characters and audience really isn’t there in the touring Broadway In A Box production currently playing at the Marcus Center. The music from what seems to be a heavily re-rendered sound design runs right over the lyrics all too often o make much of a connection with the characters and the vast distance between the audience and the performance ends up making it feel all too far away. It may not have been anywhere near as polished, but the Greendale Community Theatre production this past July was a lot better than the touring Broadway show currently running at the Marcus Center. The set and sound design, while far from perfect, were built specifically for the stage they’d come to inhabit—a space much closer to the audience with a cast that put a premium on connecting with the emotional end of the musical over technical perfection. The touring show may have its moments, but that lack of consistent connection with passion that plagues the touring Broadway production keeps it from being worth the ticket price.

If anything, the touring show is an interesting (if overpriced) advertisement for the Skylight’s upcoming production of the musical this coming May—a show which has the opportunity to fuse both custom fit of the Greendale Community Theatre production with the technical brilliance and professional cast found in the touring production. If the Skylight can get the rough edge of the musical’s passion across, they’ll have a really beautiful hybrid. If not, they’ll probably fall a bit short of the touring Broadway show . . . and live-up to the criticism Cintra Wilson had of RENT—that it’s little more than “CATS with AIDS.”

The touring production of RENT continues through November 29th at the Marcus Center’s Uihlein Hall. The Skylight Opera’s production opens May 21st.

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