Have you heard about this show currently playing in NYC called “The Grand Manner?” If not, here’s some interesting background on the show and its playwright. I mention it because the whole play is organized around a production of “Antony and Cleopatra,” which Richmond Shakespeare opens this weekend. Take advantage of the tiny break in the heat wave to go check it out.
I’ve been wondering whether I should just leave my review of “Rent” go without further commentary. It seems like I get into trouble when I try to be more forthcoming about my opinions about some shows if everything I say is not 100% positive. I guess that’s the nature of the business. But I should say that I probably thought longer and harder about this review than I have about any other one in a long time. Part of that had to do with timing. I usually write my reviews within 24 hours of having seen a show. But because of having to drive to Kentucky and back over the weekend, I didn’t sit down to write until Sunday, nearly three days after opening night. Luckily (or not, I guess, depending on your point of view), I had plenty of hours looking at the open road to try and figure out what didn’t sit right with me about the show.
There is no question that the performances were fantastic. I’ve already gushed a little about Durron Tyre’s powerhouse version of “I’ll Cover You” and Jaci Camden and Joy Newsome on “Take Me or Leave Me.” I also need to give credit to a couple of fresh faces in the cast that I hadn’t seen before – Terence Sullivan as Roger and Nadia Harika as Mimi. Though costumed a little oddly, Sullivan brings an appropriate amount of angst to his portrayal. Narika is adorable and, in the end, heartbreaking in her inability to break free either from drugs or Benny. My only complaint would be that she is maybe too adorable – I had a little bit of a hard time believing in her as an exotic dancer. But both Sullivan’s and Narika’s voices are grand and they have a distinct and compelling on-stage chemistry (see post below on Chemistry for background).
In fact, that esoteric quality of chemistry is found in abundance here. All of the couples have it and it’s ultimately what makes the show work. One of the most delightful aspects of the production is the somewhat antagonistic / somewhat empathetic chemistry between Nick Aliff’s Mark and Joy Newsome’s JoAnn. Their “Tango Maureen” was a first-act highlight for me.
Other random positivities: I loved Jaci Camden’s rendition of the performance art protest, with a mixture of defiance and absurdity and outrage and that little moment of self-reassurance when the reverb works, etc. Joy Newsome excels in her conflicted role, providing many great laughs – but also revealing a honest-to-goodness soul struggling with her love for Maureen. It took me a minute to warm up to Antonio Tillman as Angel but, when I did, I fell hard for him/her. The Tom Collins/Angel relationship really is the anchor of this show, at least in this production.
So as I was trying to figure out the aspects of the show that didn’t work for me, I reflected on some of the comments my companion for the night made. She had never seen the show before and, as I talked to her, I realized she was very confused about what was happening during much of the show. And when I thought of things in that light, I realized some of the challenges in staging “Rent” that I probably hadn’t thought about before. It’s essentially a one-set show that has to evoke many locations. There are so many ways to make this kind of thing work and not many of them were employed here. The lighting can help a lot with this -- I still remember fondly the Science Museum show about Charles Darwin where Lynn Hartman’s lights transformed a staid study full of books into a wild South American jungle. Instead, here the lights were generally too-dark with occasional flashes of brightness that I think were supposed to enhance the drama but ended up just adding confusion (IMHO).
It’s also a pretty big show that can feel pretty cramped on such a little stage. There are a lot of transitions in the show from one location to another and large influxes and outfluxes of cast members. I know this kind of thing is a challenge to stage but I didn’t notice a whole lot of order or logic in it. The sound engineering ended up being frustrating – for much of the show it was amazing: crystal clear voices with volume pumped high enough to stand clear of the band, some of the best sound I’ve heard in Richmond. But then there were interludes of feedback – always like nails on a chalkboard – and a couple key songs that got fuzzy in parts so that I missed lyrics.
A couple of random questions having nothing to do with the actual performance: no bios in the program? Maybe this was an environmental concern but I missed them. No song list in the program? Can’t think of an excuse for that one. And why does the Firehouse have “JoAnn” but on Broadway and everywhere else the character is “Joanne”?
In the end, what I ultimately came back to was the power of the source material – particularly the music – and the excellent voices employed to bring it to life. As I hope the review communicated, though it had its rough spots, this was a production worth experiencing. I have recommended it to friends who haven’t seen the show before and, when my wife goes to check it out, I may tag along again just to hear the songs and to allow Durron and Antonio to rip my heart out again.
Finally, for something completely different, you should consider checking out “Pulp” at Richmond Triangle Players, opening this weekend. This show was a lot of fun even when it was struggling along in the makeshift space at the Gay Community Center the last time RTP staged it. I expect it’ll be a lot spiffier in their new space.