How do you document real life when real life’s getting more like fiction each day? The Phoenix Festival Theatre is documenting the musical that captures that essential message with spectacular brilliance in their current production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent. Directed by Laurie Starkey with Musical Direction by Terri Mathews, this timeless musical of life, love, and humanity comes roaring to life straight off the stage in Harford County with punch, panache, and a powerful message that touches the audience in the core of their hearts.
The grungy 90’s set is an instant icon upon seeing it. Director Laurie Starkey, working with Set Designer Jeff Kanyuck, constructs two tiers of scaffolding with the pit band tucked away beneath one of the overhangs for the show. It captures the essence of the dirty streets of Alphabet City in the Big Apple while paying a tributary nod to the original show design. Costume Designer Mark Briner has a similar approach with his work, paying homage to the original design concepts from the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions without copying them.
The production itself is solid, Starkey’s directional choices creating evocative moments throughout the performance. Staging “Without You” so that the focus is truly on Angel and Collins— a concept that so many productions of Rent so easily forget because it is Mimi and Roger that sing the song— creates a touching tragic moment of reality. Other directorial choices seem less clear, like the trio of ballet dancers that appear center stage during “Santa Fe.” While their dance is fluid and cleanly executed, it upstages Collins and Angel during this number and feels oddly out of place. On the whole it is the striking moments— like the cross-fade lighting on Roger seated in profile just as he starts “One Song Glory” that make the direction of this show memorable.
The talent in the cast is exceptional across the board. The ensemble, lead by Musical Director Terri Mathews, creates engaging and energetic full sounds for company numbers like “Rent”, “”Seasons of Love” and La Vie Boheme.” Three featured soloists make themselves heard in the production with a stellar sound that is well worth mentioning. Patrick Yarrington starts off the song “Will I?” with a somber beauty that resonates through the entire song. Nickolas Epps has a featured moment in “Seasons of Love” where his strong unique sound echoes through the ensemble with gusto. Renata Hammond claims the main solo of the iconic song “Seasons of Love” bursting out with a voice that’s ferocious like thunder and pure like rain. Her range and sustain for this solo are astounding.
Mimi Marquez (Natalie Knox) shuffles into this production with an oversexed attitude and eyes set on Roger. Knox balances out Mimi’s trampy side with a sweet approach. The duet she shares with Roger, “Without You” becomes haunting and moving as their voices complement one another; carrying the heavy resonance of the songs meaning with clarity. Joanne Jefferson (Allison Dreskin) has a similar existence in this show; an attitude and personality that are hard to ignore. Dreskin handles “We’re Okay” with a flair for the dramatic. Her duet with Maureen, “Take Me or Leave Me” is a chance for her to exercise her range and show off more of her character’s attitude.
Never a more perfect couple than Collins (Mark Lloyd) and Angel (Jacob Zebley.) The chemistry that arises between them is instantaneous. Lloyd’s strong deep resonating voice is the perfect match for Zebley’s higher falsetto. Both actors craft a formidable stage presence, their characters respectively fully developed. “I’ll Cover You” is a thrilling duet filled with love and emotion, both Lloyd and Zebley bursting with joy in this number. Lloyd has an exceptional grasp of his character’s displacement in life while Zebley highlights the duality of Angel’s personality both sweet and sassy. It is heartwarming to watch them together upon the stage.
Though it is a completely different relationship, the brotherhood kindred spirits of Mark (Jake Stuart) and Roger (David Woodward) are equally captivating in this performance. Both actors have strong, though strikingly different, vocal talents. Stuart acts as the detached eyes of the show, always observing. But he gets two enormous break through solos, the title number where his anger can no longer stay detached and “Halloween” where his emotions are funneled through the lens of his camera. His duet with Woodward, “What You Own” is empowered with a show’s worth of repressed emotions, showing the depth with which Stuart has thoroughly developed the character.
Woodward has a piercing voice that drives straight to the soul of the audience. “One Song Glory” is harrowing, his soul bared open for all to experience. His vocal sustain is astonishing for a performer so young, and the emotions that surge through each of his solos are mesmerizing and intense. The duets shared with or sang at Mimi, like “Light My Candle” and “Another Day” become a fiery battle of chemistry and mixed emotions. The anguish that gushes through “Your Eyes” draws tears from the audience. Woodward creates new life in Roger, a fascinating interpretation that makes the character have a relatable humanity to him.
It’s Maureen’s (Emily Boling) show all the way. You don’t even see the character of Maureen until nearly the end of the first act but Boling is truly a tiger that will not be caged. Vocally perfect for the role, Boling is channeling the spirit of the role’s originator Idina Menzel while simultaneously bringing her own unique spirit to the character. With vocal vigor she blasts her way through “Over the Moon” and makes the song tolerable and even enjoyable. Her flavorful attitude in general generates a trail of sparks that precede her into ever scene and follows her out of every number. “Take Me or Leave Me” is a moment of vocal fireworks, rounding out the provocative physical spectacle that she puts on for the number. A fiery sensation, no other way to describe the way she has Maureen living each moment to the fullest, owning every step she takes and every note she belts.
Rent is a play about people coping with life, and everyone copes with life. Beautiful, evocative, and well handled in the hands of the Phoenix Festival Theatre. Enjoy it while you can, the run, much like life, is far too brief.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
Rent plays through September 21, 2014 at the Phoenix Festival Theatre on the stage of the Chesapeake Building at Harford Community College— 401 Thomas Run Road in Bel Air, MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 412-2211 or purchase them online.