District Theatre artistic director Tristan Tapscott has said it's his goal to make shows bigger than the theater in which they take place. Since his intimate downtown Rock Island venue seats just 55, has tight performing quarters, and stages mostly musicals, this will pretty much always be true.|
But it's rarely been the case more than with the current "Rent," the staggeringly popular rock opera that packs a tremendous emotional wallop. The members of the excellent 16-member cast pour so much soul and passion and intense energy into their committed performances you can't help but be drawn into these characters' lives.
Based on Puccini's tragic opera "La Boheme," the 1996 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning musical tells the story of seven friends in the AIDS-ravaged New York City of the '90s. They share a struggle to support themselves and celebrate their lives in spite of crises that confront them -- from shifting romantic entanglements and preserving their artistic integrity, to coping with a disease that is threatening almost everyone they know.
The late writer Jonathan Larson (he died suddenly at 35 from an aortic aneurysm the night before the show's off-Broadway premiere) tackles a lot here, including the value of art, commerce, friendship and love, and the challenges of disease, poverty, homelessness, death and broken relationships.
Mr. Larson -- who penned the book, music and lyrics -- covers this vast physical and psychological terrain with compassion, humanity, understanding and a tuneful, eclectic score that ranges from frantic hard rock and precise tango to the most gorgeous ballads and mesmerizing anthems.
In the gritty, heartfelt District production -- stunningly directed by Bryan Tank -- the action seems to use about every available surface of theater space, including a raised platform at the back of the stage to create a second level. Two highlights on that level are "Out Tonight," in which Kelly Lohrenz as the sexy Mimi prowls, strips and teases, and "Over the Moon," Maureen's wild performance art piece by an uninhibited Cara Chumbley.
The ramshackle set -- designed by Mr. Tank and Mr. Tapscott -- features black walls covered in colorful graffiti, a pay phone and movable set pieces that double as tables and beds. Another notable aspect of the production are the complex and numerous lighting changes, designed by Matthew Carney. The variety and the subtlety of lighting effects add much to "Rent"'s spellbinding effect.
But a quality show starts and ends with a quality cast, and the District lineup is flawless. Especially strong is Chris Causer as songwriter Roger (both he and Mimi battle AIDS). "One Song Glory" introduces his powerful, penetrating voice. Mr. Causer -- with his piercing gaze and almost menacing eyes -- is a commanding presence, and his wail over Mimi's body towards the end is a heart-wrenching catharsis.
Like the lesbians Maureen and Joanne (Sara King), Mimi and Roger have a volcanic, roller-coaster relationship -- from the flirty, fresh attraction of "Light My Candle" to the world-weary devotion of "Without You." The latter duet of undying love is made more poignant as we see Collins (James Fairchild) wordlessly comforting his lover Angel (Joey Baez), as he lies dying, writhing in pain.
Though Mr. Baez plays a flamboyant drag queen, he comes across not as a caricature, but as a real friend we can identify with, and we see what Angel's support means to everyone. A neat result of having built-in stairs here at the left is after Angel's death, we see Mr. Baez become a true angel, slowly ascending the steps in a white sheet as his character is eulogized.
Reflecting happier times, the duet "I'll Cover You" by Mr. Baez and Mr. Fairchild is warm and carefree. Mr. Fairchild's somber reprise of the song in Act 2, joined by the full chorus, is impassioned.
Mr. Tapscott and Ms. King are perfect in reprising their roles from the 2010 production they did at the former Harrison Hilltop, and share the hilarious "Tango Maureen," which features a particularly sharp, effective dance. Ms. King and Ms. Chumbley are fittingly strident and domineering in the face-off "Take Me or Leave Me."
Andrew Cole, who was Gary Coleman in the District's "Avenue Q," is suavely smooth and self-assured as the landlord Benny, who also vies for Mimi's affection.
Other members of the ensemble bring their own muscular magic to Mr. Larson's rich harmonies, in moving numbers like "Will I?", "Another Day," the boisterous "La Vie Boheme," iconic "Seasons of Love," and the overpowering finale which mashes up a few songs in a potent mix.
"Rent" also means "torn," and this fevered, soulful show tears up the theater, reflecting lives ripped to the core. We'd do well to learn their lesson -- "There's only this/Forget regret, or life is yours to miss/No other road/No other way/No day but today."
if you go
-- What: "Rent."
-- When: Through Feb. 24; 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays.
-- Where: The District Theatre, 1611 2nd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $20, available at (309) 235-1654. For more information, visit districttheatre.com.
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