Although it opened on Broadway just 16 years ago (where it ran for an astounding 5123 performances), “Rent” has a strong foothold in theater legend. Its creator, Jonathan Larson, reportedly worked seven years on his rock opera. He lived an impoverished life and died of an aortic aneurysm the night before his ground-breaking show previewed at the Off-Broadway New York Theater Workshop. He was almost 36 years old when he died. The Off-Broadway production sold out within 24 hours of opening night (source: pbs.org).
In it, Larson took the theme to Puccini’s “La Boheme” and updated it to reflect the lives of young artists living in New York City’s down and out “Alphabet City.” But Larson layered into this the existentialism embraced by Generation X. Theirs is the reality of HIV and AIDS, drug abuse, poverty, anger and general hopelessness in the face of a nation more prone to point a finger than lend a hand and which did nothing to avert a plague.
Directed by Steven Heron, Surfside’s “Rent” resonates with talent. In fact, you’ll wonder where so many of these fine singers and performers have been hiding.
Here are just some who have been hiding in choruses and ensembles for far too long: TJ Cravens delivers a fine and emotional “One Song Glory,” in which Roger expresses his desire to create at least one wonderful song before he dies. The wonderful Michael Bradley shows an amazing vocal and emotional range as Collins in “I’ll Cover for You,” which he sings in concert with Angel. As the landlord, Benny, Angel Martinez shows some sweet vocal strength.
Cameron Jiminez (oh my heavens, what a find!) takes his third turn in the role of Angel, the flirtatious drag queen who seduces the audience as easily as he seduces Collins. Although this is his first time on stage at Surfside, we’re not putting Jiminez into the category of those who “have been hiding in choruses…” because there’s no way this baby would ever fit into a corner.
Jesse Huffman (Hysterium in “Forum” at Titusville), as Mark, brings humor and a lovable nerdy quality to Mark, the young man who yearns to become a filmmaker. As Maureen, Leyla Erdogan (Molly Malloy in CVP’s “Windy City”) takes a big, savage, wonderful step into theater as art. She is funny and smart and creates unique and memorable stage moments in “Over the Moon.”
And as lawyer Joanne, Evita Clowney stands out, big time in this featured role. As Mimi, Yvana Clowney (Sarah in CVP’s “Ragtime”) dazzles in the quieter numbers like “Goodbye Love,” where you can hear the richness of her voice. Particularly chilling is “Light My Candle,” in which she asks Roger to, literally, light her candle so she can see in the dark. What’s chilling about this is that the lighting of a candle, being passed on, is metaphor for the AIDS epidemic, which has in its grip, the young characters of this story.
Under Heron’s direction, there is a sense of urgency to this musical. It drives with frenzied rock and roll spirit from the first downbeat of its terrific on-stage combo (Leslie Mitchell, Spener Croswell, Jacob Fjeldheim, Scott Herzog, Claudia Thomas and Forrest Mitchell).
The entire cast delivers its iconic number, “Seasons of Love,” with heartfelt emotion as they plea to us to measure our own 525,600 minutes as opportunities for love.
Despite some missed lighting cues and amplification that frequently goes on and off, this show and its performers reveal the true heart of community theater. They do this by making themselves vulnerable, putting it all out there and finding the heart and soul of this powerful musical. Warning: Bring a hanky. There is no way you can watch this production without being sincerely moved.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Rent” through May 6 at Surfside Playhouse, 301 Ramp Road, Cocoa Beach. It performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are for adults, for seniors and active military, for students. Be advised that there is strong language and sexual content. Call 321-783-3127 or visit www.surfsideplayers.com.