When you consider the limited size and the workshop-like atmosphere of Spotlight Youth Theatre’s dark and intimate auditorium, then you compare it to the 198-seat New York Theatre Workshop where Rent first premiered, there’s not a great deal of difference. Before he sadly passed away on the night before the Off-Broadway premiere, creator Jonathan Larson had only envisaged his show on a small and somewhat cramped stage, not the considerably larger forum of Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre where the musical would later transfer. Had he seen the setting for Spotlight’s new high-energy production, I’m certain he would have been suitably impressed.
Rent is a rock musical with music and lyrics by Larson that uses Puccini’s opera La bohème as a base and recreates those artistic, struggling nineteenth century artists of Italy into artistic, struggling twentieth century artists of New York City’s East Village. They’re cash-strapped bohemians in Alphabet City, an area so called because of Avenues A,B,C and D in Manhattan, living in an age of Aids and squatters in roadside tents.
For a youth theatre to seriously attempt the adult themed production and recreate the musical as is – no cuts, no self-censorship; everything intact just as it was on Broadway including f-bombs and some overtly sexual moves – is a bold move to say the least, but to pull it off with the amount of success that this talented group of young performers have done is a considerable achievement. There are rough patches – how could there not be with such an ambitious and demanding project such as Rent? – but the end result is quite remarkable.
When the show transferred from NYTW’s East side to the Nederlander, the set of an industrial loft on the corner of 11th and Avenue B had to be expanded considerably to fill out the larger stage. At Spotlight, set designers Bobby Sample and Clancy DeGroodt have created a wonderfully atmospheric facsimile of the same thing. It practically reaches from wall to wall like a condensed version of the original; it’s all scaffolding and ladders with raised platforms backed by painted bricks and old rock ‘n roll posters. Considering the limitations that Spotlight’s house can often impose, this is truly one great looking set.
If the show suffers from anything it’s the clarity of events. Rent is an ensemble piece –there are leads but as a whole, the show only works if everyone delivers – and with such a large amount of characters coming and going there’s a tendency for those watching the show for the first time to get lost. Since it first burst onto the stage over twenty years ago, a cult following has emerged. The fans – often referred to as Rent Heads or Squatters – know these characters so well that any changes to the script would be considered sacrilege. But that doesn’t help the newbie who may not always grasp the relationship between certain characters, what they’re doing and why. One thing that often works against a production is the volume of sound and the problem of the band being louder than the performers. Fortunately at Spotlight, that’s not the case.
Shunning the usual recorded soundtrack that can often come across as karaoke theatre, under music director Mark 4Man’s experienced lead, a four-piece band with Mark on keyboards brings a rough-edged, live excitement to the show that never overpowers the singers. They sit like Alphabet City squatters, huddled together, stage left. To use the Spinal Tap parlance, instead of 11 the band plays at 6 and it suits the house perfectly. Even if the newcomer to Rent doesn’t always get a firm grasp on the events, there’s no problem hearing the lyrics. Whether the song is hard rock or a ballad, there’s clarity of sound, and in a show like this where much of the story is conveyed through lyrics and not regular dialog, clarity is everything; plus, this cast can sing.
Naomi Jordan and Andi Marie Jordon’s costume designs are not recreations of the originals, yet they all echo the look and feel of what these characters would probably wear. Plus, director Kenny Grossman’s eye for detail in wanting this show to be just right extends to even the look of the all-important poster. The stenciled look of Rent’s advertising logo is just like the original; it was based on the infamous POST NO BILLS signs seen all over New York on the city’s construction sites. Robert Waller’s photo montage of this new cast, just like the originals, decorates around the wording, recreating the effect that these young starving artists themselves cobbled the whole thing together.
Jonathan Larson told his cast back in the nineties that “This is a show about my friends, so you’re all playing my friends.” Rent gives Spotlight’s repertory a unique opportunity to show what they can do. With certain familiar faces whose talent you can see developing with each new production, at Spotlight it’s beginning to feel as though we’re witnessing the ever evolving progression of friends. There were too many empty seats behind me at the performance I attended. Support them. After all, isn’t that what friends are for?
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the official Spotlight Youth Theatre website.