The musical production of Rent opened August 19 at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I will acknowledge that the WBT has been a favorite venue of mine for many years. The theatre is able to offer the production and performance values that are as good as anything to be found on Broadway because of the professionalism of performers and production crew.
Another bonus is that visitors can avoid all the fuss of bucking the traffic traveling into the City, parking at an exorbitant fee, and dining at sky-high prices. Here, dinner comes in the bargain, with prices for both the show and a meal ranging from $62 to $75. So doing the math, the theatre experience is a fraction of the cost and it's right here at home.
Although I am an avid theatre buff, I had never seen Rent, mainly because of a personal bias I've had against rock music, and I especially was loathe to see my favorite opera, La Boheme, adapted to the rock medium. But, with age comes wider acceptance, and I thought my time had come to throw caution to the wind and dive into the classic story of starving artists, a great love theme, loyal friendship, grave illness and death, all set to rock.
Some of the parallels to La Boheme that make the story more relevant to the time of its original production in 1996, is that the locale is set in the East Village of New York City rather than the Left Bank of Paris, the illness that provides the underlying pathos of the story is AIDS, rather than tuberculosis, and the sexual preferences are more varied. Also similar is that, like the opera, Rent is communicated almost entirely in song which works with rock about as well as with Puccini.
Actually, the music of Rent is more melodic that I expected and between the songs is recitative singing, a technique of rapid dialogue exchange in song to convey heated discussions between the characters and a lot of that takes place, considering the day-to-day struggles of the characters.
The 20th Century Puccini is Jonathan Larson, who worked on the score and music for a full seven years before it was first presented off-Broadway for a three-week run. It then moved uptown to the Nederlander Theatre where it ran for 5,124 performances over a 12-year stretch. The tragedy of Larson's dying on opening night added to the lore for people who are dedicated to the show.
And how was the experience of the Westchester Broadway Theater's production for someone like me who doesn't care for rock? Interesting, definitely interesting.
From the first steady beats of the score, the music and lyrics capture the intensity of a dangerous and dark existence as a bohemian. While the opera concentrates on poverty and illness as the downbeat elements, the social issues of bohemia are elevated in the 20th century version to include gay lifestyles, transvestitism, AIDS and drug addiction. While Mimi might have been a seamstress and perhaps sexually loose in the opera, she transforms into a stripper and drug addict in Rent.
But the essence of the story as it travels through time, albeit darker, is still intact. It is about people living outside convention, not fearing the future nor regretting the past, but just living for today.
Articulating that plot is a cast that is superbly talented. The eight main characters are strong both as actors and in pitch, as is the 11-member ensemble.
Mark Ayesh as Roger and Steena Hernandez as Mimi both demonstrate the ability to belt the message out loud when the action calls for it, and to pull back with great restraint when that's needed for dramatic effect. Andy Kelso as Mark Cohen, Justin Keys as Benny, and Gabrielle Reid as Joanne are equally as strong in their performances.
And, there are three standouts among performers that all but stop the show. Justin Senense is both sweet and raucous as Angel, a transvestite who packs so much love, care and exotic qualities into one role that it requires two genders to encompass it. His/her death scene is brilliantly acted and staged with lover Tom Collins, played by Angelo Rios. And when Tom remembers the love he felt for Angel in song, his wrenching performance gripped the audience.
An outlandish showstopper is the performance of Sara Ruzicka as Maureen in her over-the-top rendition of "Over the Moon." This performance art is so filled with hilarious schtick that we want it never to end. Where does all this stage business come from? Whatever the background, this is a bravura piece that I'll remember for a long time.
As for the music, there is probably only one song that all of us know, Seasons of Love. But elements of Musetta's Waltz are borrowed from the opera to heighten the correlation between La Boheme and Rent, especially at the end of the musical when its full refrain is played.
Director/choreographer Patricia Wilcox hits a home run. Every scene is perfection in staging, and the quirky choreography, many times synchronized among the ensemble as precisely as the Rockettes, creates continuous motion, always moving forward, both darkly and, ultimately, triumphantly.
Rent is performed through Sept. 25 at the Westchester Broadway Theater, 75 Clearbrook Road, Elmsford. Tickets for dinner and the show are $62 and $75. Call 914-592-2222 for days and times, or visit www.broadwaytheatre.com.