Monday, July 26, 2010

South Bend Tribune's Review of "Rent"

Impressive cast overcomes slow start in Civic's ‘Rent'


Tribune Staff Writer

Don't try to recoup your safety deposit too soon after sitting down for South Bend Civic Theatre's production of “Rent.” It just takes a little while to get settled into the neighborhood.


Alex Leachman rehearses for the South Bend Civic Theatre's production of "Rent" on Monday, July 19, 2010.The show gets off to a clunky start with lagging pauses and stilted singing. It's difficult to discern whether the disjointed feeling is because the actors are out-of-sync with each other and the orchestra or if it's just the fault of the musical as it's written.

The performance seems to hit its stride with the first big number, “Rent,” which brings in the impressive ensemble. These actors, some of whom are understudies for the major characters, all get their chance to shine in the show's numerous solos and memorable bit parts.

Unfortunately, the combination of layered lyrics and iffy sound balance often swallows these individual performances and spits out a bunch of unintelligible noise. This is a problem in several of the large company songs, such as “Rent” and “Christmas Bells,” and in some of the smaller numbers, such as “Happy New Year,” where information about plot development is lost somewhere between other characters' lyrics and under the weight of an overly-loud orchestra.

In other songs, such as the rowdy “La Vie Boheme” that closes the first act, many of its fast-paced puns and allusions are lost in the din of pounding choreography and rock music.

The simpler songs, if the multi-part harmonies of “Seasons of Love” can be called “simple,” fare better, probably because all other commotion stops for straightforward singing. The result is a heart-wrenching, beautiful song that has people onstage and in the audience tearing up.

Director David Case actually missed a chunk of rehearsal time because of illness, but with the help of assistant directors Jenn Rozmarynowki and Emily Case, he still produces some moving performances from his cast.

Stephanie Salisbury is clearly having the time of her life playing the melodramatic Maureen. She enters the performance by flinging herself into the hilariously surreal protest song “Over the Moon,” and she is amusingly flighty when dealing with Maureen's lovers past (Mark) and present (JoAnne).

John Raab probably has the most thankless job as Mark, the show's ostensible narrator. He doesn't get any love ballads, that's for certain, but Raab is the glue that holds the show together, and he sings his guts out in every song.

Raab's performance of “Tango Maureen” with Laurisa Le Sure (as JoAnne, Maureen's new girlfriend) is probably the most pristine number in the whole first act, riding on Le Sure's vocal and comedic chops along with Raab's acerbic delivery. In fact, Le Sure brings her strong voice and quick retorts to her whole performance, and rarely has an unsteady moment.

As Roger, Alex Leachman falters at first, and his “One Song Glory,” is strained rather than a poignant rock ballad, and he seems stiff in his stage movement, especially in this song. His performance – and singing – loosen up just a little bit later, with the introduction of Roger's love interest, Mimi.Amada Rivero-Aguero is both vulnerable and sultry as Mimi, and her chemistry with Leachman crackles from their first duet in “Light My Candle.”

Like Leachman, Josh Griffin starts out a little off-kilter in his role as Tom Collins, not quite jelling with the music or the other actors in his first few scenes. He and his pleasantly sonorous voice finally connect in a pair of songs, “Santa Fe” and “I'll Cover You,” the latter being the character's duet with his lover, Angel.

Belting his heart out while expertly traipsing around the stage in high heels, Fernando Gonzalez is fantastic and affecting as Angel, the cross-dressing street performer who holds the group of friends together.

Sound balance issues aside, the show's live orchestra, as conducted by Anthony Beer (who also serves as vocal director), gives the production its memorable musical punch.

David Chudzynki's detailed yet abstract stage design has enough eclectic grunge accents to evoke New York City without becoming cluttered.

There do seem to be some unsteady elements, however. In “Out Tonight,” Rivero-Aguero swings around, over and under the set's balcony pieces, and it is a fiery song except for the moments when pieces of railing wobbled and put a stutter in her groove at Friday's opening night performance. The same happened in “Today 4 U,” when Gonzalez seemed to lose his balance as the same piece of railing shook under his grip.

It could be the actors were just too forceful on opening night, but the set should be prepared to take quite a beating during the production's run. Judging by the performance's rousing finale, the initial pacing problems might have been opening night jitters. Don't expect this radiantly enthusiastic cast to let up in the coming weeks.

“Rent” continues at Civic through Aug. 8.

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