As I sit here at my laptop during yet another Entergy Company summer power failure, the task before me seems a bit ominous at best. There are times, I believe, when we critics must be on a journey to learn, rather than to instruct. Thus it was that I decided, after years of deliberate delay, to at last attend a production of Jonathan Larson’s funky musical, “Rent,” which had a very long run on Broadway before becoming both a motion picture and a common offering on stages around the country and the world. Sadly, young Mr. Larson (age 36) died suddenly the night before the show’s 1996 Off-Broadway opening in New York, and would not live to see its worldwide success after moving to Broadway. Why, you might ask, did I wait so long to see the show? Partly because friends who know my mentality cautioned that I would not like it, and partly because what little I knew about the musical’s style and somewhat depressing themes, made me think perhaps my friends were correct. Those same friends, by the way, had enjoyed the show themselves while believing I would not. Meanwhile, the popular show was clearly speaking loudly (and I do mean LOUDLY) to a whole generation much younger than my own. What finally convinced me it was time to “get with it” was the fact that my favorite Houston area musical theatre group, Masquerade Theatre, was taking the challenge of mounting the complex production with founder Phillip Duggins directing. That was too much for me to resist.
So it was that my guest and I, having enjoyed a pleasant pre-theatre visit to the Hobby Center’s lovely Artista dining room, arrived at Zilkha Hall for a final weekend performance of “Rent.” With a few strings of colored holiday lights adding a bit of austere gaiety to cheer the dreary scene, Amanda McBee’s rambling set design for a run-down apartment building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side had the kind of organized chaos that would permeate the show itself. We learn the building’s location is at 11th St. and Avenue B, a rough and tumble neighborhood with which I am very well acquainted. Many decades ago I spent two years living at 219 East 2nd Street (between Avenues B and C) while a young student at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I won’t bore you with the details of being mugged in the apartment lobby or having police apprehend burglars coming in through our 5th floor skylight while I cowered below with a large kitchen knife in hand. But enough about me.
As the show moves along we begin to meet the assorted characters associated with this apartment building, including the somewhat greedy landlord, Benny (Kendrick Mitchell). With plot lines inspired by Puccini’s opera, La Bohème, we have a thoroughly bohemian crowd that includes a Mimi (Libby Evans), and her sometimes beloved, Roger (Luther Chakurian), a songwriter/guitarist longing to make his mark. Chakurian expresses this longing with rock star intensity as he sings the explosive “One Song Glory,” describing Roger’s dream of creating, “…one song to redeem this empty life.” Roger’s friend, Mark (Michael J. Ross), is both the show’s narrator and a would-be filmmaker busily filming all his pals in slice-of-life documentary style. Mark is lamenting the loss of his girlfriend Maureen (a powerhouse performance from Rebekah Dahl) to her new lesbian lover, Joanne (Beth Lazarou). Suddenly Mimi takes on the look of seductress for her sensuous and slithering “Light My Candle.” But a mood of desperation seems to prevail for these people at every bend in the road. Meanwhile, out in the street, one of the gang’s pals, Tom Collins (Michael Dickens), has been mugged. He is comforted by the very flamboyant drag queen, Angel (Dylan Godwin), and as fellow HIV-positive AIDS victims, they quickly become pals. AIDS, by the way, is like another character in the play and wreaks no small amount of havoc before the final curtain. But for a bit of deliciously outlandish comic relief, Mr. Godwin has a showstopper with Angel’s zany song, “Today 4 U.” There is more exotic and much-needed fun with the rhythmic “Tango Maureen” number, well sung and danced by Ross and Lazarou (choreography by Laura Gray & Michelle Macicek). Evans delivers Mimi’s raunchy, “Out Tonight,” and Chakurian’s fierce reply brings her into a powerful duet of “Another Day,” that is full of desperation, but with a beautiful and infectious melody that is fully realized as the ensemble joins in. Mr. Chakurian, well known for his extensive versatility as an actor, reaches into yet another challenging zone as Roger.
The full company delivers a haunting, “Will I?” that seems a musical tapestry of the collective anxieties of these troubled souls, all expressed in lushly beautiful counterpoints. Reflecting dreams of a happier life out in California, Collins leads the ensemble in a rich rendition of “Santa Fe,” and then he and Angel express their mutual devotion with, “I Will Cover You.” Full-voiced Evan Tessier, playing a local drug dealer, leads a group of street people who add ironic touches with a bit of Christmas caroling amid the grimness of the surroundings. Miss Dahl delivers a zany and undulating, “Over the Moon,” and she owns the stage as she embodies the kookiness of the group with this fun-filled song. With all due respect to this fine repertory company, no one could have pulled off that number quite the way she did.
The rhythmic and jazzy, seated choreography of the catchy “La Vie Boheme,” virtually explodes on stage to close Act One. I found myself wondering how Mr. Duggins could direct with such energy. That energy continued in Act Two, notwithstanding the fact that there were a few empty seats here and there in what had been a full house for Act One. Highlights included the more familiar and quite wonderful “Seasons of Love,” from the full cast, and featuring some great solos, not the least of which was sung by Stephanie Jones in such stunning gospel style that the audience erupted in spontaneous applause. If she doesn’t show up in a Masquerade production of “Dream Girls” I will be surprised. Miss Dahl returns with a strutting and sassy, “Take Me Or Leave Me,” and is well paired with Miss Lazarou in this harsh and lashing duet.
Now allow me to complain just a bit. Speaking of duets, Mimi and Roger join in a sadly strident version of the lovely “Without You,” that I wish had more softly embraced the kind of tenderness that would make their love for one another more believable. That shortcoming was not helped by Mr. Dickens’ somewhat off-key delivery of Collins’ “I’ll Cover You” reprise, though he had heartfelt and rich back up from the ensemble. Miss Evans delivery of Mimi’s “Goodbye Love,” was another disappointment and bordered on annoying. Compounding these difficulties were the occasional songs that had such complexity (with cast members singing various things at the same time) that it would be impossible on first hearing to grasp everything being presented. But through it all you could tell these fine actors had done their homework. They clearly knew what they were singing and understood the struggling lives of this group of people trying so hard to deal with life, death, and love for one another. That love, when it is working, is what holds this dazzlingly complicated piece together, bringing us at last to the lovely, rich sounds of the full company finale. I recall that during the intermission I spoke with audience member, Bob Pizzitola, from LaPorte, Texas. He had a thought-provoking question for me: “Can you imagine dreaming this up and putting this all together?” Too bad Mr. Larson is not still alive to comment on that question, but happily director Duggins was not afraid to put it all together.
Masquerade Theatre will begin its 2010-2011 season at the Zilkah Hall of Houston’s Hobby Center with a production of the musical, “Chess,” playing October 1st-10th, 2010. For tickets and information call 713-861-7045 or visit the website at www.masqueradetheatre.com.