It was fortuitous that my first piece for Xpress’ theatre review project was the rock opera Rent by Jonathan Larson. I was in middle school when the play first came out, got to go see the original production at the Nederlander Theatre in New York, wore a hole through the CD, had the T-shirt, signed poster and know all the words to “La Vie Boheme.” If there was ever a musical I really felt qualified to review, it’s this one.
Rent has won a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony for best musical and is the 7th-longest running Broadway show ever. It is based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Boheme, but sets its plot in modern (1990s) New York City, instead of Paris in the 1800s. It follows the story of a group of artist friends, trying to keep from going broke in a difficult economy. Sound familiar?
The show is currently being put on by Asheville-based Bioflyer Productions at the Diana Wortham Theatre as a benefit for the Eblen Charities, WNCAP and Loving Food Resources. As per usual, Bioflyer frontman Rock Eblen wears multiple hats in this production as the show’s director, producer, and scenic/sound/costume designer. He also plays the role of Benny.
As is true with previous Bioflyer endeavors, Rent gives Eblen the opportunity to show off his tremendous knack for pulling actors out of the much-tapped Asheville woodwork who are immensely talented and aren’t the same 10 faces that seem to get cast over and over in every show in town. I was positively bowled over by the vocal talents of the performers in this production.
Derek Stipe and Erica Layton head up the cast as the tragic lovers Roger and Mimi (not quite as tragic as Puccini‘s Rodolfo and Mimi, but you get the gist). Stipe is new to musical theatre, but shows no signs of it in this production. Layton, a senior at UNCA, encountered microphone difficulties on the opening night, but handled it like a pro. I would say she handled it like a lady, but one can only be considered so lady-like while grinding on a banister and making cat noises.
There was quite a bit of microphone and speaker challenges when I attended the production, as there often is on opening nights. While as an audience member, you try to dismiss most technical difficulties, I do think that the entire cast would have benefited from more rehearsal time with the body mics and with the live band. There was a definite synchronicity issue between the band and the actors throughout the production, and in a show that has plenty of numbers that make Stephen Sondheim feel tongue-tied, it was hard not to notice.
Daniel Hensley and Rod Leigh also got a chance to strut their vocal stuff in this show as Mark Cohen and Tom Collins, two roommates on the verge of homelessness and destitution. And Margaret Evans rounds out the cast, with her belts and hip rolls, as the off-color, loud-mouthed performance artist Maureen.
Chuck Taft serves as musical director for Rent, and Jacob Walas adds his talents to the production as choreographer.
While I was thoroughly impressed with the actors’ vocal ranges and spot-on harmonies, and naturally, by Jason Williams’ usual brilliance in his lighting design for the show, I was a little bummed that there wasn’t more variety between the Bioflyer version of Rent and the one I saw on Broadway, as far as artistic choices go. The set was exactly the same, the props, even some of the costumes were complete copies of the professional version. While I don’t know how specific the script is in what it calls for with these elements, I kind of wish that Eblen could have thrown some creativity into making this show his own.
Ultimately, though, the show was an awful lot of fun and for a great cause.
Tickets are $20, $15 with Student ID. Performances are 8 p.m. through Saturday, April 24 at the Diana Wortham Theatre. Suggested for mature audiences. www.dwtheatre.com.