“RENT” Players By The Sea theatre review

RENT-174_PHOTO-CREDIT-MichaPlayers by the Sea and The Lazzara Family Foundation present “Rent,” the Tony and Pulitzer prize- winning musical by playwright Jonathan Larson. Larson died, tragically and unexpectedly, on the morning of the play’s first Off-Broadway preview performance in 1996. The play moved to Broadway in April, where it remained for a run of twelve years. The revival at Players opened on July 18th, 2014 and will be on stage until August 9th. All performances are in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. The first two nights of this production played to packed houses, and tickets for the remainder are reportedly going fast. For reservations or information call 904-249-0289 or visit playersbythesea.org.

The only local production of “Rent” was a road show in 2009. Why no community theatre productions? None dared undertake the task of staging this intense work, until Players, under the marvelous direction of Alejandro Rodriquez, transformed this now classic musical into a spectacular theatrical event.

A short version of the plot. The story follows a group of struggling actors and squatters in New York in 1989-1990 and is loosely based on “La Bohème,” Puccini‘s opera; it also incorporates situations and characters drawn from the playwright’s experiences. While nitty-gritty themes include drugs, homelessness, homosexuality, and AIDS, the play offers much more: a community whose members share hope, love, and caring in adversity. 

One of the responsibilities of a critic, we feel, is to research the plays so theatre goers will know what to expect. In the case of  “Rent,” we will pass on this; instead we urge you to arrive early enough to read the extensive information in the program provided by Holly Gutshall. After a recent term as Players’ president, she is currently the Resident Dramaturg, a role which includes, among other responsibilities, historical and cultural research, which is shared with cast, crew, and patrons. 

Her notes are excellent, be sure to read them. 
THEATRE_RENT-10491117“Rent” has eight principal characters and each one could be labeled a leading character. Mark (Ross Frontz) is always seen with a portable movie camera as he is making an unscripted documentary of the world that surrounds him. Mark is also the narrator of the show.

Roger (Elias Hionides) is a talented guitarist but a failed musician, who is trying to write a comeback song. And he is an ex-junkie who is HIV-positive. He falls in love with Mimi (Rachel Romo), an attractive stripper who is a heroine addict.

Tom Collins (Joseph Lorenzo Sykes-Burns) is a gay college professor with AIDS, and a former roommate of Roger and Mark. He falls in love Angel (Jordan Leggett), a very likeable, flamboyant drag queen.

Maureen (Krystal WhiteKrystal White), volatile and demanding, is a former girlfriend of Mark, who dumped him for the staid Joanne, a public interest attorney. Benny (Milton Threadcraft III) is the landlord of the building where Mark, Rodger, and Mimi live, and is planning to evict them unless they come up with the rent money. He previously shared Mark and Rodger’s apartment, but currently has little sympathy for the issues that concern them, as he has married into a wealthy family involved with real estate. 

The talented ten, the ensemble members, play many roles and are part of the big numbers featuring the entire company. Making up the ensemble arePost to Post Links II error: No link found for term slug "Jessica Alexander, Jimmy Alexander, Ryan Arroyo, Harrison Breault, Alix Bond, Olivia Chernyshev, Ilana Gould, Sadie La Manna, Ron Shreve, and Netta Walker".

This is a sung-through rock opera with 41 songs, and every member of this terrific cast can belt out a song. The actors are expertly miked so you never miss a note of all the marvelous voices. The excellent band is located off to the left behind a chain link fence and consists of Jay Ivey, the Musical Director and Conductor, on keyboard, Greg Hersey on percussion, Tommy Harrison playing guitar, Peter Mosely on bass, and Misha Frayman on keyboard/ guitar. Song styles are varied, and include a few slow romantic ballads and a tango. The most popular song (and the best, in our opinion) is the vibrant “Season of Love” that opens Act II. 

Director Rodriguez also choreographed the show and was at his best with two numbers in Act One: “Santa Fe” and the rousing finale “La Vie Bohème/I Should Tell You.” 

Jim Wiggins, Lighting Designer, has transformed the stage into a dramatic light show. There must be 300 or more light cues in the two acts. The set features long tables that serve as platforms at times, along with scaffolding that supports the actors in groups, and a graffitied background by local artist Chip Southworth.

The costumes by Post to Post Links II error: No link found for term slug "Ash Heffernan, Kenadi Delacerna and Ron Shreve" depict the social status of the characters, and range from drab to colorful to surprising. Kat McLeod handled the demanding job as Stage Manager to perfection.

The show, which runs for over two hours, moves at a swift pace, and you will find yourself caught up in vibrant music and the relationships of the characters as they move through an era of personal and societal crisis. 

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.