by Robert Gillis, published in the Boston City Paper 2/2010

[Full disclosure: This is not a paid review, I just thought it would be nice to write a review about the extraordinary performance of RENT, playing here in Foxboro at the Orpheum Foxboro — no one asked me to do this.]

During the “Halloween Song” of the stage production of the play, “RENT,” one of the characters wonders, “How could a night so frozen be so scalding hot?” The question was perfectly timed last Friday night: Outside, the arctic tundra of a Massachusetts January evening had frozen everything solid, yet inside the Orpheum Foxboro; a scalding, scorching presentation of RENT was being enjoyed by an enraptured audience.

Bay Colony Productions continues to present professional quality stage plays, musical theatre, dance, musical events, youth theater programs, charity events and concerts, movies and family entertainment (and a wonderful Haunted House in October).

The performance of RENT I saw with a packed house at the Orpheum on opening night quite literally blew me away. Holy smokes, stage productions in New York don’t have the quality and energy we witnessed Friday.

Having no previous knowledge of the RENT storyline besides a cursory glace on the internet, I let the story unfold naturally, I was hooked from the first note, as the 17 cast members performed what appeared to be a flawless execution of the play. No missed cues, no flubbed lines, no opening night missteps.

The paradox of this play — at least to me — is that the songs, choreography, costumes and cast interaction is so good that sometimes one forgets the very real issues they are singing about.

The performance became so very, very real that I felt like an intruder, a voyeur watching people’s personal lives unfold as they dealt with life and death issues of AIDS, alongside complex questions of relationships, sexual identity, loss of dignity, emotional baggage, what to do with your life, drug addition, homelessness, toxic relationships, illness, poverty, living for today, making a difference before you die, and of course, how to pay (or not pay) the rent. Although the play takes place almost 25 years ago, its themes are just as relevant today — we still don’t have a cure for AIDS, and gay and bisexual concerns and rights are even more relevant in 2010.

Straight, gay, bi or somewhere in between, everyone deserves to love and be loved, and everyone deserves the same rights. This play illustrates this effectively and beautifully, but never in your face — the story unfolds naturally; the underlying themes are there — obvious but never never expositional. It all feels very real.

I just cannot say enough good things about this performance. The actors were uniformly excellent. The singing and dancing — whether to happiness, confusion or crisis — was a natural extension of the action and never felt forced. There was very real sensuality and sexual chemistry between the different lovers. The words and actions are risque and mature without becoming lewd or crass.

In short, what I saw felt real. Even though 99% of the play is sung, it was easy to forget I was watching a play — the acting was that good.

No one is miscast. Kevin Hanley (Roger), who seemed to have a James Dean vibe going on, grabbed the audience from the first note and his powerhouse voice never let us go. Albert Jennings (the cross-dressing Angel and easily the most beloved character) was hilarious and sexy but somehow innocent and silly. Chauncey Moore played Benny the landlord with just the right amount of New York City hot-shot arrogance and smoothness. Eric Desnoyer (Mark) provides needed exposition via his omnipresent camera. His role is an interesting one, in that Mark’s role is written as an observer, living vicariously through his camera and the other’s lives. Later in the play when you find out just how alone Mark really is, Desnoyer really shines and conveys Mark’s loneliness. And Tom (Michael Dimascolo) seemed to steal many of the scenes he was in. His acting was particularly powerful; his body actions did an excellent job conveying his poverty and dissatisfaction with his life. His scenes with his lover Angel were uniformly perfect. You believe these two actors are a loving couple. And the wordless way Tom held Angel [Spoiler alert] as Angel died made me cry.

As Mimi, Jess Andra had me with the flirty, poignant, “Will you light my candle?” She was wonderful. I loved her performance and I think she made the biggest impression on many in the audience. Her character says she’s 19, but her hooker-like apparel and drug use make her so much older, and yet she’s still a child inside.

Shayna Ross as Maureen is the enigma wrapped in a riddle surrounded by a puzzle and she has a LOT to stay. Certainly many of the most entertaining moments were from her “one woman show.” And Joanne (Leeta White) was also exceptionally good, especially in her scenes with her lover Maureen as the two played off their love/hate relationship. Her voice was powerful.

(I should note that when I saw the play a second time on March 6, Liz Harmon, who looks a bit like Jennifer Love Hewitt, played the role of Maureen with equal parts intensity, sensuality, passion and crazy. She was incredible.)

The ensemble supporting cast added much to the show and made it seem larger than it was. Whether they simply sat quietly, sulked, or observed the action, or participated in song, they added the needed population to make this “New York” seem real.

I loved the set — an elegant combination of old furniture, chain link fences, doors, scaffolding, graffiti, boarded up doors, signs, old tires and perfect lighting.

Dori Bryan, the Director/Choreographer for RENT, Steve Dooner (Assistant Director), Esther Zabinski (Musical Direction) and Bill Cunningham (Producer) have created a TRIUMPH. THANK YOU! On the scale of one to ten, can I give the show and “11?” And while the behind the scenes credits would be quite lengthy, I must again compliment Bill Cunningham, whose management of the Orpheum benefits Foxboro in so many ways, and to costume designer Daniel Kozar (the costumes were spot-on) and to Michael Teixeira, Ed DiMarzio, Gail Gilman and everyone else at the Orpheum who worked countless hours, often behind the scenes, on these labors of love, performing not only their own multiple job descriptions but doing what else is needed as well.

The show was sponsored by AIDS Care Ocean State, who presented a short film showing the good work they do helping people with, and those affected by, AIDS.

Friends, I’m not a regular theater goer and certainly not a comprehensive reviewer and my complete knowledge of the nuance of RENT comes from one viewing last Friday — but I know what I like, what I love and what blows me away. I recognize quality when I see it. This was textbook QUALITY theater.

RENT at the Orpheum Foxboro surprised me a dozen different ways last Friday night and the standing ovations at both the intermission and finale would seem to indicate everyone else felt the same way, this play is a triumph.

Everyone involved have literary knocked this out of the park.

RENT is for mature audiences, but despite the themes of AIDS, death, confusion and generally sadness, there is also true joyousness, genuine love, and new life discoveries throughout the performance.

There is “No day but today,” the cast sings during RENT. “There’s only us, there’s only this, forget regret, or life is yours to miss, no other road, no other way, no day but today.”

That’s good advice. Take today and go see RENT at the Orpheum. Through February 7, with encore presentations March 5, 6, and 7.

(All photos in this post courtesy of Bill Cunningham and copyright Bill Cunningham and Bay Colony productions)

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