Curtain Call (Photo credit: Keith Ian Polakoff)

Published on March 4th, 2016 | by Greggory Moore

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RENT @ Cal State Long Beach

by Greggory Moore

I may have been the only theatre critic in America who’s almost totally unfamiliar with Rent. All I could have told you prior to now is that it was a big hit, has something to do with AIDS, and is parodied in Team America: World Police.

Nonetheless, it was apparent to me early in Act One that Rent is meant to be a spectacle on a scale that perhaps no undergraduate production—even one helmed by the redoubtable Joanne Gordon—can deliver.

This may be an unfair criticism. I was there to review an undergraduate production, after all. Plus, why shouldn’t part of Gordon’s mentoring this generation of young thespians include trying on shows of all sizes?

But this review is supposed to help you decide whether you want to put your good money down. Well, that depends on what you want in return. It’s my duty to inform you that if you want Rent in all its potential glory, this isn’t the production for you.

Full disclosure: I wasn’t going to love Rent even if I saw it on Broadway, where it won a Tony, a Pulitzer, and remains the 11th-longest-running Broadway show in history. Really more of an opera than a musical (there’s more recitative than spoken dialog) with a thin plot that in Act Two starts jumping forward as if it were a film that producers took away from the director and cut for length, if Rent works, it’s because the broadly-drawn characters strum your heartstrings with their songs. Because to me the music is often meandering (fuller disclosure: a problem I have with most musicals). Clearly, I’m not the University Players’ target demographic.

Nonetheless, I found things to like. For starters, it’s a spirited cast. Rent is a high-energy show if there ever was one. Bored I wasn’t, partly because the energy was always flowing, with the knob turned up to 11 when need be. The highlight along these lines is “Christmas Bells”. Way too complexly layered to sing along to in your car, it would be a terrible mess were the full ensemble not in polyphonic lockstep. But the cast pulls it off without a hitch, and it’s exciting.

The standout cast member is Christian Sullivan, who imbues Angel with that special sort of projection the best musical actors always seem to have—and that’s before we even get to numbers that give him a lot to do, like “Today 4 U”. Other cast members have their moments. “Tango: Maureen” is a clever, charming back-and-forth between Mark (Christian B. Schmidt) and Joanne (Nicole Royster) about their former and current lover, respectively. Maureen herself is introduced later, in “Over the Moon”. Because “Over the Moon” is both the longest stretch of the show focused on a single character and a performance within Rent‘s plot, whoever plays Maureen is going to stand out, for better or worse. Thankfully, Kayla Kearney gives us the former.

In terms of pure songwriting, for me two songs tower above the rest, and the University Players deliver these effectively. One, of course, is “Seasons of Love”, so famous that I knew it without knowing it’s from Rent. Composer Jonathan Larson perfectly marries the simple beauty of his catchiest melody line with the concept of living minute by minute for the (sing it with me) five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes that make up a year, the duration Rent‘s action. I reviewed a production of A Chorus Line a couple of years ago, a musical I knew fairly well thanks to my mother’s obsession with it but hadn’t heard since childhood. I didn’t like it any better than I did as a kid, but when they performed “What I Did for Love”, I had to admire the craft. “Seasons of Love” is that moment in Rent. (God knows Larson thought so: he wrote half of Act Two around its motif.)

The other is “Will I?”, a simple, spare, haunting bit of songwriting that by itself makes me glad I saw Rent. “Will I lose my dignity,” members of an AIDS support group ask each other. “Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” The company turns these three lines into a round, harmonies taking flight from all sides, music that seems to imbue their fear of dying with all the dignity the characters hope to preserve. Powerful stuff.

Unfortunately, the orchestration of the University Players’ production isn’t set up to propel the bigger numbers so effectively. Bass, drums, guitar, and a couple of keyboards (one with a poor excuse for a piano sound) probably isn’t enough under any conditions, but the music here is needs to be 50% louder to give Larson’s music the push it demands. This volume problem leaves the vocalists exposed, which hurts a young cast whose talents are in development.

Visually, the staging feels incoherent. Costumes seem random (should Roger really be running around in a sleeveless vest during a frigid New York winter as he battles HIV while living in an apartment with no heat?), and the c. 1990 period specificity of Rent is sabotaged by anachronisms (everyone has a cell phone like the one in your pocket, we’re inundated with iconic images of the recent Wall Street crash). The choreography is also a jumble, with the cast’s energy dispersed as often as it is focused.

Because of its complexity and its genetic predisposition to be spectacle, Rent is a hard show to stage. Give the University Players an A for effort, but you weren’t expecting Broadway, right?

RENT CAL STATE LONG BEACH UNIVERSITY PLAYERS • THEATRE ARTS BUILDING (CSULB SOUTH CAMPUS—ENTER W CAMPUS DR OFF 7TH ST) • LONG BEACH 90840 • 562.985.5526 CALREP.ORG • WED-SUN 8PM • $20-$25 • THROUGH MARCH 19

(Photo credit: Keith Ian Polokoff)

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