Rent at 30 by Ninety Theatre through October 3
It’s been a tough month or so for theaters in our area what with first the Delta variant surge and then Hurricane Ida’s devastation. Many have had to cancel or postpone productions as they’ve dealt with damage to their structures, uprooted rehearsal schedules, and/or concerns about cast, crew, staff & audience members who are focusing on repairing/rebuilding their own property. I wish them all the speediest of recoveries.
At 30 by Ninety Theatre in Mandeville, however, the show has gone on with only the slightest of interruptions. Rent had played just a couple of performances when Ida shut things down. Fortunately, 30 by Ninety sustained only minimal damage and the production was able to return after only one fully shuttered weekend.
Unless you’re aware of musical theater only post-Hamilton, you should know that Rent is the late Jonathan Larson’s adaptation of Puccini’s La bohème to NYC’s East Village in the early 1990s, before gentrification transformed it from a gritty, somewhat dangerous neighborhood into one of celebrity-owned bars.
Its characters are an assortment of artsy types living by the skin of their teeth; while such folks still abound, nowadays they might hope to be the next TikTok sensation or operate their own fantastically lucrative YouTube channel.
Their relationships, love stories both comic and tragic, form the core of the show and can still powerfully affect an audience. Yet these days, what strikes me about Rent, is that what was once seemingly a report from the front lines, particularly regarding those living with HIV/AIDS, can now come off as almost a historical musical, like Oklahoma! or South Pacific, as so much that was intrinsic to the plot and its times has changed. For example, the despairing line in the song What You Own about “living in America/At the end of the millennium…/Where it’s like the twilight zone” seems almost quaint when juxtaposed against today’s problems.
Directors Jonathan Sturcken & Cashel Rodriguez’ production, while not perfect, delivers a fast-paced and highly engaging version of this modern classic, the 11th-longest running show in Broadway history. While one misses having live music, without a band playing at deafening levels, as is usually the case, you can understand virtually every word of the score as their cast boasts excellent diction.
Rodriguez’ set may not transport you to NYC–its graffiti covered walls and doorways being just generic urban blight–but its split level allows the directors to have the story’s multiple narratives occur simultaneously in cinematic fashion. Costumer Andrea Elu has assembled an impressive array of togs that capture the period. I would just question the use of the new intersex-inclusive Pride flag (so new that I had to google to find out exactly what it was) as it momentarily disrupted the carefully curated 1990s atmosphere; that said, I suspect many in the Northshore audience thought it was just a prettily colored banner.
(I know the funny line referencing the “Scarsdale [NY] Jewish Community Center” went over most of their heads as I was about the only one who laughed at it.)
Following his superb performance in last year’s The Pillowman for RoBenHood Productions, Jonathan Damaré scores again as he suitably depicts musician/songwriter Roger as a tortured soul; never “acting”, Damaré draws from his core to make you feel the pain and frustration eating away at Roger’s innards. Add to this his immensely expressive vocals and I hope that audiences on the South shore will have more opportunities to see him in the future.
As the self-destructive Mimi, Christina Ingrassia, whom I’ve admired since her turn as Janet Weiss in Delgado’s The Rocky Horror Show, subtly softens the hard edges of this erotic dancer without ever sentimentalizing her; she captures not only Mimi’s street savvy but hints at a deeper intelligence as well. A fine singer, I would’ve like to have seen a little more sense of abandon in her big number, Out Tonight, though that might have been the fault of the (uncredited) choreographer.
Together, Damaré and Ingrassia admirably fill out the script’s contours of the characters and bring out the tenderness they feel for each other in such numbers as I Should Tell You.
Filmmaker Mark is a tough role as, without a real love interest, he can be overshadowed by the other characters (he has only one introspective solo, the brief and wordy Halloween) or just come off as whiny. Spenser Hunt, after a slightly slow start, imbues him, however, with a complexity and vital passion that inform his conflicts with pal Roger and with his own self as he vacillates between pursuing a more lucrative career in shlock TV or staying true to his art.
With Rebekah Alphonso’s Joanne, the lawyer-turned-production-coordinator, Hunt finds all the humor in Tango: Maureen as they commiserate over the challenges in seeing his ex- and her current lover; they also pair very well vocally.
Alphonso, who brought down the house earlier this year with Mama Will Provide in Slidell Little Theatre’s Once on This Island, does so again here with We’re Okay as she juggles phones while trying to convince herself about her fraught relationship with Maureen. A winning actress with a pitch perfect, powerful voice, Alphonso succeeds in making Joanne a lawyer you actually like and root for.
I’ve never quite been able to understand what Joanne (and Mark) see in the temperamental and tempestuous Maureen, but with Jeanetta Johnson’s portrayal it finally makes sense. Beautiful, sexy in her leather outfits, and with a keen acting presence, Johnson fabulously mines all the humor in Over the Moon, a parody of performance art. I still feel it goes on too long, as I did when I saw Idina Menzel do it in the original production, but when it’s done as well as Johnson does it here, with a cunning attention to detail (note how she bangs that cowbell), I don’t mind at all.
Johnson and Alphonso’s soulful duet Take Me or Leave Me is another highlight even if Johnson can’t quite match Alphonso’s vocal heft.
Played originally by Tony Award winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia and, in 2008 at Le Petit, by Roy Haylock (aka Bianca Del Rio), the drag queen Angel just might be the showiest role in Rent.
Jeremy Lloyd, another alum of SLT’s Once on This Island, looks the role with his lithe body and bountiful hair (it was nice to see an Angel who didn’t need a wig for full effect), acts the role well with a sweet spirit and fierce flicks of his fan, and dances the hell out of it. As I recall him being an equally talented singer in Island, I’m not sure if he was having an off night vocally when I saw it or if the quicksilver choreographic demands of his featured song Today 4 U overpowered his singing abilities, but his voice didn’t equal his other talents for this performance.
As for Tom Collins, a former MIT professor now teaching at NYU and the moral center of the show, he’s portrayed by Calla Harper who, not only looks more like a college, or even high school, student than a professor, but, more importantly, lacks the gravitas that the role requires. Harper’s thin voice, difficult to hear even tho I was sitting a few feet away in the front row, doesn’t help; especially in the bluesy Santa Fe, it lacked the requisite heartfelt quality. Only in the reprise of I’ll Cover You, as Collins mourns over Angel’s body, did Harper summon up the necessary vocal and emotional power.
In a variety of smaller roles, members of the ensemble contributed sharply defined portrayals, and the group came together as a singing’n’dancing whole to add vibrancy throughout the entire musical.
I could quote from the well-known No Day But Today, part of Rent’s finale, to “Give in to love or live in fear” but I think that’s rather simplistic and that one has more options than just those two. Instead, I think the last 18 months and especially the last 4 weeks has exemplified another lyric from the song, “I can’t control my destiny”.
That said, what you can control is if, in the next two weeks, you’ll see 30 by Ninety’s Rent. Whether you’re a Renthead or a Rentvirgin, a choice to visit Mandeville will reward you with an evening of music, talent and passion.
For more information about and to book seats for Rent as well as 30 by Ninety’s next production, the classic comedy Arsenic and Old Lace (Oct. 30-Nov. 14), go to https://www.30byninety.com/