[All Photos by Melissa Taylor. Click any photo to enlarge.]
By DAVID DOW BENTLEY III
“The People’s Critic”
It was bold. It was brassy. It was rowdy. It was brazen. It was “in-your-face.” And for much of the time, it was musically quite loud. Perhaps it was those collective elements that resulted in a substantial portion of the Theater Under the Stars audience frequently cheering enthusiastically during the current production of Jonathan Larson’s successful off-beat Broadway musical, “Rent.” Or perhaps it is the fact that there is often an underlying atmosphere of affectionate caring and sweetness that threads its way among this odd collection of youthful ne’er do wells, “hippies” and “free spirit” rebels living on Manhattan’s sleazy Lower East Side during the early days of the dawning HIV/AIDS epidemic in the last century. The play struck a close chord for me, as I had briefly lived in that same unsavory neighborhood when I first came to The Big Apple to study theatre at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts after graduating from the University of Texas ages ago. But enough about me.
This particular production could not have been more enthusiastically introduced than was the case when TUTS Artistic Director, Dan Knechtges, stepped forward to greet the audience, while himself visibly bursting with excited anticipation of the opening curtain. He concluded by giving the audience a short video treat screening a well-done promo for the TUTS Organization’s renowned Humphreys School of Musical Theatre. Since 1972 it has been Houston’s outstanding training ground for young people following a performing arts path. After that, it was on with the show!
Loosely based on Puccini’s opera, “La Boheme,” the often-challenged characters in this sometimes-dizzying musical drama are a Bohemian group of struggling young artists. They are collectively furious at an unscrupulous local landlord who is locking tenants out of an apartment building. Their mood of protest is reinforced by the spirit of rebellion that was already widespread in a war-weary nation increasingly unhappy with the escalating conflict in Vietnam. The opening Christmas Eve scene gives us roommates, Mark (Scott Redmond as a would-be cinematographer), and rock guitarist, Roger (Adrian Lopez). Bad news begins to abound as we learn (via hard-to-hear answering machine messages), that Mark’s girlfriend, Maureen, has left him. Meanwhile the guys’ gay friend, Tom Collins (Will Mann), a very left-wing professor at NYU, announces he is coming to visit, but finds himself mugged enroute. If that is not enough bad news, the guys’ landlord, Benny, (Jamal Houston) is shutting off their power and demanding the prior year’s back rent, which they had previously understood to be forgiven.
But injured Tom is discovered and helped by cheerfully flighty cross-dresser, Angel (Tomás Matos as a scene-stealing cutie who lights up the stage singing, “You Okay, Honey?”). The two hit it off, and soon learn they are both HIV positive. Oh, and Roger is also infected, having caught it from his last girlfriend who took her own life upon learning she was positive. Courageous director, Ty Defoe, had a mammoth task to weave together such a complex number of characters and plot lines. And that’s just the beginning of Act One.
So, by now you have probably figured out that this is not your grandma’s Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. But it is a profound recognition of a world health crisis, the gritty details of which may make it a no-go for some. I was reminded of this by a pleasant Father & Son pair that was seated near my guest and I in the theater’s Diana Restaurant before the show. The two were avid Broadway musical fans and had recently attended the Hobby Center’s production of “Moulin Rouge.” They were so captivated by it, they bought pricey tickets to return to see that show again the very next night. Alas, on this occasion we passed them during intermission as they apologized that they were unhappy with the production and were heading for the exits. They would not be alone, as there were certainly sprinklings of newly empty seats as Act Two began with a dreamlike full cast performance of one of the show’s loveliest tunes, “Seasons of Love.” But for the many who remained for the second act, this energetic young cast would offer numerous knock-out solo and Ensemble performances that would bring cheers and loud applause, notwithstanding the various depressing plot lines that follow.
Funky costumes from Colleen Grady, equally funky choreography from Monica Josette, back-wall video projections from designer Katherine Freer, and eye-catching lighting from Michelle Habeck, would all contribute to the impact. Sound Designer, Andrew Harper, managed the volume levels well for the several explosive, full cast numbers. Meanwhile, with Charlie Alterman’s Musical Direction, and the prize-winning history of the piece, (The Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Original Score), one can easily be reminded of Linda Loman’s legendary last line in “Death of a Salesman”:
“ATTENTION MUST BE PAID!”
With Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson, RENT continues through this weekend at Houston’s Hobby Center main stage. Remaining performances are Friday & Saturday at 8pm, with 2pm matinee performances on both Saturday and Sunday. For tickets visit the website at www.tuts.com, or call (713) 558-8887 locally, and (888) 558-3882 (outside of Houston).
A member of both The Lambs Club Inc. and The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the columns of DAVID DOW BENTLEY III have appeared on Broadway websites, in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast, and may be viewed online at the website: www.ThePeoplesCritic.com . E-mail may be directed to ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
Your gifts with words are ours to enjoy! Gre
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the production of this rent. It’s sad to think that some are being left behind and not able to enjoy the same experiences as others because of their financial situation. We should all remember that these productions should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their economic background. We need to make sure that the opportunity to see beautiful productions of this work is not restricted only to those who can afford it. We should all work together to make theatre available to everyone, regardless of their economic condition. Thanks again for your input.