Review of Rent

The musical Rent, currently running at Asheville Community Theatre, was considered groundbreaking when it debuted in the mid-1990s, a new Hair, musical theatre for the MTV generation. Rabid fans of the show were dubbed “Rentheads” and saw as many productions as possible, and memorized every lyric to sing along with the soundtrack. Fast-paced, gritty and both modern and nostalgic at the same time, ACT’s newest show demonstrates the theatre’s braveness in moving beyond the easily accessible and palatable to all productions that is often the marker of community theatre.

The gist of Rent is a group of young, bohemian artist types squatting in an East Village building are on the verge of getting kicked out of their digs despite having been told by their former roommate and friend that they could live there rent-free. Some are bisexual, HIV positive and/or drug addicted, and almost all are scrappy and poor. The plot of Rent follows their efforts to remain in their building, navigate complex relationship situations, illness and their art.

There is almost no dialogue that isn’t sung, and Rent differs from other musicals in that the sung dialogue often has a colloquial quality that can be both poignant and hilarious. However, most of the plot developments also come in the lyrics, and as this show is very fast paced, it can sometimes be hard to keep up.

Director Jeff Catanese has assembled a impressively talented, racially diverse young cast, most of whom list in their bios that they are performing in the show of their dreams.  Their enthusiasm and dedication is palpable, and a few leads stand out from the gifted ensemble. Andre Ellerby, who plays Tom Collins, stuns in what is apparently his stage debut, and has a natural stage presence and strong, powerful voice.  Mary Kathryn Lyerly portrays the Harvard-educated lawyer Joanne with a pitch-perfect characterization.  Two other leads with strong voices, Joseph Wilton as Roger and Jeffery Hyde Thompson, also bring quality acting to their performances, which is not necessarily the usual case with musical theatre. Trevor Perry’s turn as drag queen Angel was both riveting, funny, and heartbreaking.

The set and lights were solid, and despite a somewhat redundant tendency to have actors stand on furniture when peaking in a number, the staging of the show was consistent and appropriate. However, the spotty function of the body microphones was a big problem with the show. It was opening night, but that is no excuse for a problem which made many of the actors sound pitchy and inaudible, and left the audience somewhat confused as to plot points simply because they couldn’t hear the lyrics. The microphones kicked in full force in the second act during the excellent “Take Me or Leave Me”, which proved bittersweet as it highlighted all the incredible singing the audience had been largely missing. 

Finally, the audacity of ACT to put Rent, complete with its R-rated language and sexual themes, on its main stage should be commended. It’s very easy for community theatre to play it safe, and though Rent is a 15-year-old play and its themes may not seem daring to some, it could be very risky for a community theatre whose audience is often assumed to be conservative. While Rent may not convert those who already dislike musical theatre (for despite its grittiness, it’s still full of people singing their feelings), it can expand the horizons of musical theatre lovers who usually stick to standard Rodgers and Hammerstein fare.

Rent runs through March 6, and, provided their microphone problems are fixed, this solid production will not disappoint both Rentheads and musical theatre fans new to the show, but ready to be rocked out of their seats.

Music, lyrics and book by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Jeff Catanese. Musical Direction by Brad Curtioff. Scene Design by Jeff Catanese, Jill Summers, Adam Cohen, Dave Bortle. Costume Design by Rachel Gordon. Properties design by Jessica Lane. Lighting Design by Brian Sneeden. Through March 6. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
http://www.ashevilletheatre.org or 254-1320.

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