Thunder Bay Theatre's newest production, the much-hyped and award-winning musical, "Rent," is the kind of show serious performers relish sinking their teeth into, especially since it deals with a group of artistic-types who are trying to make it in a world sometimes stacked against them.
Right from the first moment when Artistic Director J.R. Rodriguez bounds onto to the stage to give the audience a few brief announcements and show notes, it's clear the high regard in which he holds this piece that garnered a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Drama for its creator, Jonathan Larson, as well as three Tony Awards.
Likewise, the cast of 17, made up of community members and TBT's core company, plus two professional actors brought in specifically for this show, totally embraced "Rent," giving it 150 percent of their energy.
Considered a cultural touchstone of the 1990s for its edgy handling of such subject matters as AIDS, homosexuality, drag queens and drug abuse, the show is set in a dilapidated industrial loft in New York City's East Village. The loft's tenants, currently bunking there rent-free, are incensed when Bennie, their former roommate turned landlord, now expects them to cough up rent money or face eviction. They're not impressed either with his plans to convert the space into some type of artistic center that supposedly will benefit them in the long run.
Among the tenants are the recovering heroin addict, HIV-positive, wannabe rock star Roger, whose girlfriend recently committed suicide. Roger's roomie, Mark, serves as the show's narrator of sorts by filming the action around him for a documentary. He's morose because his girlfriend, Maureen, recently dumped him for another woman, the bleeding heart lawyer, Joanne. Then there's the character of philosophy professor Tom Collins, who finds his true love in the exuberant, life-affirming drag queen, Angel.
Since "Rent" is loosely based on the 1896 Pucinni opera, "La boheme," the music of this modern-day opera is essential. It's also highly complex and abundant there are 44 songs listed in the program, though many of them are merely snippets of sung conversation.
Thunder Bay Theatre
Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, 2 p.m.
Box office: 354-2267
TBT's "Rent" features several standout performances, including Derek Spack, who delivers a dark and despairing rendition of "One Song Glory," about his deep desire to write one great song before AIDS claims him. Newcomer Kevin Ray Johnson also commands the stage as the self-absorbed yuppie landlord and developer, Bennie.
Noteworthy as well are LeShawn Bell as Tom Collins (one of his best songs is "Santa Fe" sung with Roger, Mark and Angel), Hannah Matzke as the promiscuous Maureen (she does a zany performance routine in protest of the new development plans for their apartment), Nickie Hilton as the brassy Joanne (one of her funniest moments is when she simultaneously handles calls on a cell phone and a pay phone, never missing a beat), Mackenzie Fountain as Mark and Emily Szatkowski as Mimi, an HIV-positive drug addict Roger falls for when she accidentally drops a bag of smack in his presence.
But it is TBT newcomer Tyler Davis who shines the most brightly in his role as Angel. He perfectly portrays this quintessential drag queen, and in the end, absolutely nails it when Angel succumbs to AIDS.
The leads, along with the supporting cast, sound rich and full on their group numbers, including the best known song of the show, "Seasons of Love," in which Johnson and Tracie Papin belt out beautiful solos. The full cast also sings and performs with gusto, "La Vie Boheme," much to the delight of Greg Adamus, who served as musical director for the show.
The well-designed set provides the appropriate rundown warehouse feel and the varying levels required to give the large-size cast the space they need to perform. Lighting usage was also effective.
It should be noted that this is not a show recommended by TBT for anyone under 13 because of sexual content/offensive language, and rightfully so. There are underlying themes of living for the moment and of love in all its varying forms, which are unabashedly depicted by gay, lesbian and straight characters alike. Maintaining artist integrity versus selling out and the treatment or acceptance of those with HIV/AIDS serve as additional themes - all of which give the enthusiastic cast at TBT plenty of inspiration for their performances.