It can be difficult to predict what something will become when you’re close to it. Whether it will endure. If it will stay relevant in a fickle market. How it will grow, if at all.
Though the bohemian artists in John Larson’s Rent faced similarly uncertain futures, there was no doubt in the musical’s enduring potential when it debuted off-Broadway in 1996.
With 160 in attendance for opening night on Players by the Sea’s Main Stage, the cast and director Alejandro Rodriguez rose to the occasion note-for-note. The size of the stage and sparse set might have seemed too minimalist in staging one of the best musicals ever written. Two tables, three simple scaffoldings and a backdrop painted by Chip Southworth (Keith Haring’s Ghost) was the whole of home-sweet-slum New York. But like the characters that inhabited the stage, the theater made ends meet with no shortage of charisma and charm.
And it really was the small details that added that charm. You could smell the matches as Roger stamped them out on the floor during “Light My Candle.” You could hear the live band just out of eyeshot off stage flip their sheet music or tune an instrument. You could feel Joanne’s heels as she stomped and dragged them during “Tango Maureen,” and you could see the tears trickle down the cheeks of the company on the emotional “I’ll Cover You — Reprise.”
Charming as those things were, they were simply background noise to the talented voices in this cast.
The narrative starts slow with Mark and Roger (Ross Frontz and Elias Hionides), but the 525,600 minutes of their story kicks into overdrive when the live band and company arrive to perform “Rent."
Some of the best performances of the night came from songs that featured the entire company, as the actors created harmonies with each character pushing their voice to pop out of the melody and then back in with ease.
Though initially a minor character we’re inclined to despise, Milton Threadcraft III knocked it out of the park playing landlord Benjamin Coffin III (wonder if the “III” was a prerequisite for the gig) with a voice as powerful and rich as the character he was playing.
The second half of the play drops the carefree attitude of the first and things get more emotional for the characters. As a result, the songs allow them to really stand out as individuals and explore their range.
Though not a tear-tugger, the best performance of the evening might have come from Krystal White and Kerri Alexander (as Maureen and Joanne) in “Take Me or Leave Me.” Their voices — individual and combined — were enough to induce.
After a 15-minute intermission, the entire company took the stage with the audience clapping and moving along with them on “Seasons of Love.”
The five voicemails scattered throughout Rent, most from worried mothers, also drew laughs as they hackled to those sons who don’t call home often enough.
Though the film adaptation was faithful to its source material, the stage version at Players by the Sea blows that away. In addition to the songs and quirks that didn’t make the leap from Broadway to Hollywood, there’s a heightened sense of relevancy when you see the characters evolve in front of you, staging a musical that gracefully humanizes issues of AIDS, LGBT rights and poverty.