Monday, August 8, 2016

Theater Review: RENT -- Ivoryton

The cast of RENT. Photo: Jacqueline Hubbard
It Took a Couple of Decades, but Theater-Changer Finally Pays Some RENT at Ivoryton
By Lauren Yarger
When Ivoryton Playhouse Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard greeted the audience for the current production of RENT, she did more than welcome the crowd. She sort of made a statement about how theater stays current.

This rock musical, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 and forever changed the face of musicals, appeals to a younger crowd and represents a bit of a gamble for Ivoryton, where the crowd is, like many smaller regional theaters, shall we say with respect, not so young, and used to more happy-ending type productions. It might have taken 20 years for the timing to feel right to bring to quiet Connecticut this story of a bunch of Bohemian kids in New York’s East Village who are trying to survive poverty and AIDS, but it seems to have paid off. Audiences have been responding favorably to this well staged production featuring a talented cast that is one of Ivoryton’s vocally strongest to date. “Seasons of Love,” for example, one of the well known tunes form the show, is a pleasure with Jamal Shuriah and Sheniquah Denise Trotman, who wowed us as Effie in Ivoryton’s production of Dreamgirls, nail their solos.

In a story by Jonathan Larson inspired by Puccini’s La Bohème , some young people are squatters in a building (Set Design is by Martin Scott Marchitto), owned by former tenant Benny (Collin Howard). Benny is demanding back rent that the friends can’t pay. They are Mark (Tim Russell), a filmmaker whose girlfriend, Maureen (Stephanie Genito ), just left him for Joann (Maritzaa Bostic), his roommate Roger, a musician, whose AIDS-infected girlfriend committed suicide, and their friend, Tom Collins (a beautifully voiced Patrick Clanton), who finds love with drag queen Angel (Jonny Cortes). Roger might find a second chance at love with neighbor Mimi (Alyssa Gomez), who also is HIV positive.

Maureen stages a protest against plans to evict the building’s dwellers in a very funny “Over the Moon” avant-garde presentation, but the building is padlocked when they return. Benny might have a change of heart, however, if former girlfriend Mimi can influence him.

The story focuses on how these young kids become a makeshift family of support and love – in contrast to their biological families. Parents leave a number of voice messages for their kids, but are clueless about “La Vie Bohème” and what they are going through as they try to find their place in the world.

“Forget regret. Life is yours to miss,” go the lyrics.

Hubbard’s attention to detail helps tell the story as it plays out on multiple levels. There is a lot going on, with the entire cast on stage throughout (costumed by Designer Lisa Bebey and performing Choreography by Todd Underwood that puts us in mind of the original production.). Hubbard effectively fills out background movement without distracting from the main action. When Roger and Mimi are exploring their feelings in “Another Day,” the spot light (design by Marcus Abbott) appropriately is on them and the actors bring a full scale of emotions and depth behind the words they are saying and the fear that encompasses them.

That duo also has one of the show’s favorite tunes, “Without You” which was delivered with such raw emotion (under the guidance of Musical Director Michael Morris) that the audience was silent at its finish instead of bursting into applause, which somehow would have seemed out of place in the touching moment.

RENT developed a cult following, especially when its composer, Jonathan Larson, died the day before the show opened in New York. It grabbed the hearts of a young generation and won the Tony Award for best Musical. It went on to play more than 5,000 performances and is the seventh-longest running show in Broadway history.

“Rent Heads” were folks who went back to see the show multiple times. It was one of the first shows to offer “Rush” tickets – cheap seats in the front row – on the day of the performance to make sure lower-income people had a chance to see live theater. Following this tradition, Ivoryton Playhouse will save 20 seats for every performance at a $25 price. Those seats will be available after 6 pm every show day.  If you are interested in helping to support this program, call (860) 767-9520 ext 205.

Note: the show contains brief nudity.

RENT rocks out the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton, through Aug, 28. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. Two additional Saturday matinee performances have been added Aug. 20 and 27, both at 2 pm. Tickets are $50 for adults; $45 for seniors; $22 for students and $17 for children.  (860) 767-7318;

Additional credits:
Sound Design by Tate R Burmeister, Costume Design by Lisa Bebey, Hair and Wig Design by Elizabeth Cipolina.

Full Cast:
Jamal Shuriah….Mr. Jefferson, Pastor, “Seasons of Love” Soloist 2 
Sheniquah Denise Trotman…. Mrs. Jefferson, Coat Vendor, “Seasons of Love Soloist 1” 
Collin Howard…. Benjamin Coffin III 
Tim Russell…. Mark Cohen 
Grant Benedict….  Gordon, Mr. Grey and others 
Johnny Newcomb…. Roger Davis 
Alyssa Gomez…. Mimi Marquez 
Patrick Clanton…. Tom Collins 
Jonny Cortes…. Angel Dumott Schunard 
Maritzaa Bostic….Joann Jefferson 
Stephanie Genito…. Maureen Johnson 
Ronnie S. Bowman, Jr….. Paul, Police and others 
Mac Cherny…. Steve, Squeegee Man, Waiter 
Sandra Lee… Mrs. Cohen and others 
Josephine Gottfried…. Alexi, Roger’s mom and others

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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