Fresh spin, enthusiastic cast give 'Rent' a new lease on life

For the News-DemocratMarch 11, 2014 

Not that anyone would describe "Rent" as stodgy, but an iconic rock opera could grow stale, hampered by the weight of expectations and the reverence for its game-changing place in American musical theater history. Especially after it has made the rounds so many times.

Leave it to New Line Theater to give this seminal work a fresh spin. The result is an electric, enthralling presentation of the landmark Pulitzer-Prize, Tony-winning musical that ran for 12 years on Broadway.

It's imaginatively staged by director Scott Miller, assisted by Mike Dowdy. They made their snug space work, and accented the warm community aspect that brings out the show's emotional core. The innovative, functional set by Rob Lippert also enhanced the experience.

Creator Jonathan Larson used Puccini's opera "La Boheme" as a template, updating his tortured artist characters as ones grappling with HIV/AIDS in the early '90s in New York City's Alphabet City (lower east side).

Larson imbued his characters -- mainly struggling young adults trying to survive in an increasingly cold, cruel world -- with distinct personalities. They range from the high-maintenance hystrionic flirt Maureen to flamboyant transgendered Angel, whose giving nature keeps the group together.

A dynamic, tight ensemble delivered the powerful vocals and glorious harmonies of Larson's poetic, pulsating score. Those of us "RentHeads" (my eighth time seeing the show) know every lyric, but the way this cast interpreted them was special. How can you not want to sing along with the epic "Seasons of Love"?

This cast is deeply invested in the show, their passion pouring out. "I'll Cover You," "Without You," "No Day But Today" and "What You Own" resonate with feeling.

East St. Louis native Marshall Jennings' velvety voice gave Collins a vulnerability and sweetness that paired well with Luke Steingruby's strong turn as Angel.

Casting against type, Anna Skidis wowed as drug-addicted exotic dancer. Mimi Skidis, a Fairview Heights native, is often cast as the wacky sidekick, but she showed a surprising range. Another force of nature was Sarah Porter's Maureen, whose performance art piece "Over the Moon" was one of the opening night's highlights.

Jeremy Hyatt made his professional debut as earnest filmmaker Mark, and he was spot-on, energetic and frustrated, leading a fiesty "La Vie Boheme." Evan Fornachon played Roger as pouty, a tortured soul driven to write music and destined to fall in love with Mimi.

SIUE alum Cody LaShea as lawyer Joanne and Shawn Bowers as Benny, displaying fine vocals, rounded out the principals.

The supporting players were sensational, with New Line regulars Ryan Foizey, Zachary Allen Farmer and Marcy Wiegert giving their all, and newcomers SIUE student Kevin Corpuz, SIUE alum Wendy Greenwood, Robert Lee Davis III and Nellie Mitchell extremely energetic.

Their zeal propelled the show's intensity, and it seemed like we were seeing some of these characters for the first time. No one dominated, and with such an ensemble show, that's a good thing.

Marcy Wiegert's and Sarah Porter's costumes were inspired, reflecting the character's social status.

The show's timeless message about love, loss, friendship, hopes and dreams endures in an even more cynical world than when the show was workshopped in 1994.

There is a vitality to this show that continues to move us, no matter how things have changed. And New Line captured it with a keen sense of discovery and a nod to not just living in the moment, but embracing the human connection.

What: "Rent"

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, through March 29

Where: New Line Theatre, Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road (old CBC High School), St. Louis.

Tickets: $15; $10 students/seniors; $7.50 educators/military. Metrotix 314-534-1111 in advance or box office at door (cash or check only)

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