AISLE SAY Washington D.C.


Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Michael Grief
at the National Theatre
Washington, DC / Telecharge: (800) 447-7400
Through June 4, 2000

Review by Richard Gist

Whatever the reasons–and there are several, not all of which are easily articulated, the late Jonathan Larson's "RENT" continues to entertain audiences with its driving score and raw emotional power. And now as the musical moves its way into the lofty sphere of American classics among the genre, and the venues where it is performed invariably have a large enough group of so-called "Rentheads" to make the evening full of electricity, all doubts to the legitimacy of RENT's acclaim seem to be historical fancies.

RENT has become more than a night at the theatre–here's a show that actually lives up to its promise (as did the touring versions of "Chicago" and "Cabaret" I hasten to add) even without the Broadway cast, suggesting that this is a musical more impervious than most to the need for big-name leading players. Not to belittle the efforts of this fine ensemble, as long as cast members look and act their roles, and are able to handle the challenging singing demands presented by Larson‚s complex score (no mean feat by a long shot), this libretto has the power to take flight and captivate no matter what.

Mark Cohen is the MC of the proceedings–a narrator of sorts, but not in the Technicolor Dreamcoat vein–Mark is urbane and cynical, much in keeping with his hard-knocks diploma, and he is at least tangentially involved in whatever plot lines are etched out. An aspiring film maker, he begins by setting the East Village scene through the lens of his 16mm camera: "December 24th, 9 pm . . . First shot - Roger, tuning the fender guitar he hasn't played in a year... Hold that focus steady. Tell the folks at home what you're doing, Roger . . ."

Mark is played in this touring version by Matt Caplan, and he nails the role with all the charisma the role demands, if somewhat devoid of the cynical humor some have brought to the character. Caplan's singing is crystal clear and his on-stage agility impressive, so apparent in his late Act One blockbuster "La Vie Boheme."

Cary Shields is a tall and rangy Roger, Mark's HIV-positive song-writing roommate, and his singing is solid throughout, even though his characterization is excessively transparent in certain key scenes. Opposite him as the heroin and AIDS victim Mimi is Saycon Sengbloh, whose performance was marred by some hoarseness on her haunting and anguished "Light My Candle" anthem, followed by the seductively raucous "Out Tonight" torcher a few minutes later which somehow fell flat by the time it was over.

The standouts of the cast from this reviewer's perspective - and this is almost always the case, leading me to believe is has as much to do with Larson's accomplishment as my own impressions–are Horace V. Rogers as the M.I.T. computerized philosophy teacher, Tom Collins, who discovers how to crack an ATM machine, and his drag queen lover, Angel, played in a compassion-filled whisper by Shaun Earl. Mr. Rogers, a baritone in the role for a change, has a singing voice that is pure syrup, top-quality maple, and his rendition of the gorgeous reprised threnody "I'll Cover You" was among the show's true musical highlights.

The other paired principals, Roger's ex-flame Maureen and Joanne are played by Erin Keaney and Jacqueline B. Arnold, respectively. Ms. Keaney's down stage performance of "Over the Moon" is full of spunk and originality, and Ms. Arnold sings and dances her way through the "Tango Maureen" with Mark with verve and professionalism. Maureen and Joanne together render the soulful duet "Take Me or Leave Me" with all the antagonistic intensity the number demands, if a tad over amplified. Brian M. Love as the smarmy yuppie power figure, Benny, adds to the role what is often lacking–namely an essential charm that peeks through his authoritative declarations throughout most of the show, paving the way for us to believe his character's turnaround in the late going.

With nary a scene change, and a set that is junkyard-style tenement, the show calls for as much color and flash it can get. Mimi and Angel's exaggerated costumes, designed by Angela Wendt), really provide all that is needed in that department, while Blake Burba's pinpoint lighting heightens the visual interest all evening, though a few cues seemed to be a tad off on opening night. The incandescence of this musical, however, really emanates from the richness of its memorable characters and their vibrant and touching expression through Larson's brilliant, emotionally-charged rock idiom score. RENT is an express train journey into pop lifestyles that somehow bridges an enormous generational gap among its audiences with its modern day richness of Puccini-inspired themes and resonant musical numbers.

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