The beginning of a new season for any theatre group is an exciting time, but the beginning of the new season for Phoenix Theatre is particularly thrilling. Not only does it coincide with the unveiling of an impressive new building complex, which you must see for yourself, but also the audacious project with which the theatre has chosen to begin its ninety-third season – Jonathan Larson’s hit Broadway rock musical Rent
By taking on the hugely popular Broadway show, based on the Puccini opera La Boheme, Phoenix has presented itself with a challenge that could have easily gone south the moment the opening song began, but the good news is quite the opposite. A show like Rent may be considered a departure from the usual Phoenix lineup – a hardcore, rock musical is hardly the kind of show you may associate with Phoenix Theatre – but the fact that the overall production is done so well shows once and for all that after ninety-two seasons, there’s no doubt the Phoenix can successfully rise to just about any challenge it tackles.
The success of this particular production is how well the music is performed and presented. Rent has a huge following. There’s a good chance that throughout the show’s run there’s going to be many in the audience who will have already seen various productions of the past around the country; in some cases, several times. With this kind of faithful fanaticism, comparisons are going to be made.
One of the problems that often befalls Rent is the imbalance of sound. Raucous rock concerts can get away with incoherence. The audience is there to experience something visceral and enjoy seeing a favorite band live, but a rock musical is different. When a show like Rent tells its story through song, the lyrics need to be heard. An obvious statement, I know, but it’s amazing how often a director will approach the show as if presenting a rock concert believing that all that’s really required is a driving, ear-busting, pounding force to satisfy its audience, all the while forgetting that in order to engage the senses and move you emotionally a lot more subtlety in its musical presentation is required. Rent needs an adrenaline-fueled approach in order to work, but it also needs lyrical clarity, and this Phoenix Theatre production, which jumps the moment the show begins, has it.
Aaron Jackson’s scenic re-design of the run-down apartment building and its environs is a visual triumph that fills the Phoenix stage in such an effective and functional manner, I’m reminded of a previous production where the set appeared so cluttered, the cast had trouble avoiding each other as they moved around the available space. Not so here. The Phoenix stage may be smaller and more intimate than many, yetJackson’s loft is exactly what’s needed. Coupled with Mike Eddy’s glowing lighting design that beams down creating an illusion of a larger area, the overall effect is one worthy of a Broadway stage.
Director Robert Kolby Harper has assembled a solid cast that the opening night audience appeared to warm to from the beginning. At the start of the second half where everyone assembled for what became an outstanding performance of Seasons of Love, the audience applauded the cast the moment it appeared as if greeting the gathering of old friends. The singing voices of all are outstanding, and it’s the intelligibility of sound, supported by Craig Bohmler’s music direction and Reynaldo Saenz’s wonderful keyboard that make this Rent rise above others.
Lucas Coatney’s Mark takes charge of the stage with a surprisingly forceful presence right from the start, though in truth he appears a little too well-fed to be considered a starving artist, and even though the character is not gay, there are moments when this particular Mark seems to be on the verge of an occasional hissy temper-tantrum. Marisha Castle’s Mimi possesses one the show’s best voices, plus she captures that slightly dangerous and unpredictable spirit required to make Mimi’s character work. Her big rock ‘n roll moment Out Tonight, doesn’t quite instill that sense of raw energy the song needs despite her full-on attack, but when singing the more subtle Light My Candle and Without You, Marisha makes Mimi shine. Jenny Hintze, who has proved time again how good she can be given the right role, doesn’t quite instill her Maureen with the right amount of gravitas the aggressive though vulnerable character requires. Maureen’s Over the Moon is on its own terms a satire, a send-up of the kind of performance-art you might catch in an underground NYC club. The way in which the piece is performed here is perhaps a little too broad for its own good and needs to be pulled back just a little.
The most natural performance comes from Lee Hollis Bussie as Collins. According to the program, Bussie has played Collins before. He obviously knows the part and knows what’s required to make the anarchist teacher with AIDS come alive. His rendition of I’ll Cover You in the second half will break hearts.
Despite minor production hiccups, Rent is a great beginning to what – fingers crossed – should be a landmark season for Phoenix Theatre.