RENT at Titusville Playhouse. Photo by Niko Stamos.
By PAM HARBAUGH
There’s something about the rock opera “Rent” that defies logic. Despite its thin story line, dated quality and frequently annoying characters, it abides.
There’s certainly a reason why it became a Tony Award, Drama Desk Award and Pulitzer Prize winning musical which launched into legend when, the night before its Off-Broadway opening, its creator, Jonathan Larson, died of an aortic aneurysm. It sold out the entire run within 24 hours. It opened on Broadway in 1996 and ran for 12 years.
Whatever the magic, and each fan has their own definition of that magic, Titusville Playhouse has mounted a solid production of the musical filled with a driving beat and passion.
Directed by Steven Heron, this production is awash with musical talent and unforgettable performances. From the first downbeat, you know you’re in for a rare community theater treat.
Inspired by Puccini’s grand opera “La Boheme,” the story in “Rent” revolves around a group of young artists living meagerly in New York City’s “Alphabet City.” The group, haunted by HIV and AIDS, lives an existential crisis. They are the hopeless and hapless citizens in a nation more prone to point a finger than lend a hand and which did nothing to avert a plague. For a brief respite, we felt that finger-pointing had gone. Alas, it’s returned, more self-righteous than ever…so maybe now is a good time to bring the show back to life.
Indeed, this musical continues to speak to many. It has also created a theater phenomenon where fans will flock to a production tour and then follow it as it travels. This could happen when Titusville’s production travels, cast and all, to the Henegar Center where it runs June 7 to 16..
Heron, who saw the off-Broadway show and the Broadway show 15 times, was no doubt was influenced by those originals, which shows in his casting of top-notch performers.
Jocelyn Evans, will bring you to tears in the show’s iconic number, “Seasons of Love” which asks “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes/How do you measure, measure a year?”
And Zach Thomas, who plays Mark, the documentary filmmaker spending a year with the artists of Alphabet City (and constantly adjusting his eyeglasses) leads the jubilant “La Vie Boheme.”
But what gets you in its grasp from the get-go is Jordyn Linkous singing “One Song Glory.” Wearing a T-shirt with the image of what must be his character’s idol, Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, Linkous hits the soul of rock as Roger, the musician longing to write a song that will live past him. It may take you a second to recognize him, but Linkous was the one who turned in the hysterical performance as the foppish maid in “La Cage aux Folles.” Here, he turns dramatic and shows off a very strong musical presence that easily fills the theater.
Melinda (Lebo) Benya is sensational as Maureen Johnson, the performance artist who sings “Over the Moon,” a nonsensical piece that is, at its heart, playfully earnest. But Benya sails in “Take Me or Leave Me,” a hard driving rock duet with the amazing Jataria Heyward, who plays Joanne, Maureen’s lover.
Kellie Rhianne, who sings at Disney’s “Lion King” show, portrays the sexy drug addict Mimi, who sings that she wants to go “Out Tonight!” But she’s at her best the first time we see her in the alluring “Light My Candle” (a bit borrowed from “La Boheme”) she sings with Roger. And of course, that becomes especially chilling when considering the lighting of a candle off another symbolizes not only love, but also the spread of AIDS.
Xavier Reyes is ideal as the character Angel, a drag queen who sings “Today 4 U.” A professional performer, Reyes played Angel in the first national tour of “Rent.” He was also in the national tour of “Kinky Boots,” “West Side Story,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “In the Heights.” He has performed at regional theater around the country, including the acclaimed Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, NY.
Stealing the show from all this talent sounds like an impossibility, but it’s nearly done by a mighty singer in the modest person of Deejay Young of Orlando. As the character Tom Collins, Young sings “I’ll Cover You” in a second act reprise that, yes, does stop the show and brings people to their feet. It’s rare to find such power and expressive interpretation on a community theater stage.
Also on stage are musicians Paul Terry on drums and Nathan Taylor on guitar, who are led on keyboard by conductor/music director Spencer Crosswell. Along with some recorded music folded in, the three pack quite the musical wallop in this driving, non-stop rock opera.
The final result is big, loud, live music, thanks in a big way to Trevor Peters’ sound design which, without sacrificing intimacy, turns Titusville’s small house into a big, music-filled concert hall.
The look of the show is gritty and simple. Jay Bleakney’s scenic design employs some scaffolding, made even grimier by scenic painter Jonathan Willis. And lighting designer Luke Atkison gives it all life with complex lighting that feels very much like a rock opera.
And, you may feel your breath being stolen by a handful of thrilling theatrical moments, employing glitter, plastic and the like.
For sure, there are numbers which are pretty minor, forgettable actually, and could be omitted, which would do well in shortening the show. And there is that unexpected ending, which betrays the original material. But this is Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.” It’s not going to get changed anytime soon. And hopefully, there’s no such thing as “Rent, Jr.” If there is, please don’t tell anyone.
This is a big show designed to entertain as well as pay tribute to those who were lost to AIDS. It does just that. Your feet will tap and your heart will ache when considering the loss which continues to resonate.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Rent” runs at Titusville Playhouse through June 2. Tickets are $25 to $29 with a $2 service fee. Discounts for seniors and military. Titusville Playhouse is at 301 Julia St., Titusville, FL. Call 321-268-1125 or visit TitusvillePlayhouse.com.
The same production, with the same cast and design, travels to the Henegar Center and runs June 7 to 16. Tickets are $29 general and $26 seniors, students and military. The Henegar is at 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne, FL. Call 321-723-8698 or visit Henegar.org.