The ’90s trendsetter was Rent, an off-Broadway work inspired by Puccini’s opera La Boh�me that became an unlikely Broadway hit where it ran for 12 years. Today, the show can feel more like a period piece (as do those other trendsetters I’ve cited), but with a smart director and a vibrant cast, it can take contemporary audiences back in time to an earnest, urgent and frenetic era described in the song “La Vie Boh�me.”
That’s what’s happening onstage at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), where a two-week run of the tale of life on New York City’s Lower East Side in the early 1990s continues through the weekend.
The CCM performers in this cast were in elementary school when these stories of artistic ferment and angst over HIV/AIDS were part of everyday life and they don’t have enough of the rough, passionate edge that typified the show’s original production. Director Richard E. Hess, who heads CCM’s drama program, has challenged these musical theater majors to dig deep into their acting skills to bring the eight central characters to life
The on-again, off-again chemistry between Josh T. Smith and Natasha Ashworth as Roger and Mimi makes sense, but a bit more connection would enhance it. There’s no such problem between Max Chernin (showing magnificent vocal range) and Melvin Brandon Logan as the oddball couple of philosophical Tom Collins and Angel, a charming drag queen. You can truly feel their love.
The third couple — Mia Gentile as wacky Maureen (who delivers an electrical show-stopper with “Over the Moon”) and Alysha Deslorieux as her super-smart, often uptight lover Joanne — keep it interesting, but their affair seems tenuous and ill-fated. Ryan Breslin is videographer Mark, more an outsider than a participant (his relationship with his friend Roger needs more texture). Grady Long plays one-time artist and Mimi’s ex-boyfriend Benny, now the landlord who harasses the others about “rent.”
The performers have great voices and acting skills, but they did not quite embody the edgy people clinging to life that Jonathan Larson created. Nevertheless, they convey a commitment to the material and the message of love and community that made Rent a show that profoundly moved audiences in 1996 — and does so onstage at Patricia Corbett Theater.
Rent is exceptionally watchable: Brian J. Ruggaber’s set, dominated by a forced-perspective, multi-story tenement that looms over the action, uses two roll-around platforms that are moved and configured for various spaces. The action is dramatically illuminated by Weston G. Wetzel’s lighting, employing beams and pools of light to isolate action and bars of glowing LED color on the metal-beamed platforms that wash emotion over various scenes or underscore chaotic changes from one number to another. Steve Goers provides excellent musical accompaniment with five other musicians; alas, they’re stuck beneath the stage (actually under subway grate), which diminishes the immediacy of their playing.
Hess has worked hard with his cast to present a Rent with impact and contemporary meaning. Audiences are responding (a March 2 performance was added to meet the demand for tickets), eager to be reminded by Rent that a life can be measured in love. That emotion is evident in this production.
RENT, presented by the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, continues through Sunday.