‘Rent’ begins today at Marvel Theatre

It is rare for a musical to win both a Tony Award for Best Musical as well as a Pulitzer Prize in Drama, but “Rent,” Jonathan Larson’s modernized version of Puccini’s opera “La Boheme”, won both prizes and has become a mainstay in the musical theatre canon. Rife with contemporary story lines and songs that are both memorable and insightful, the musical is an obvious choice for college-age performers and SUNY Fredonia’s Department of Theatre & Dance has put together a high-quality production of “Rent” that features the singing and acting talents as well as the designing skills of their students and faculty.

Set in the late 1980s or early 1990s, “Rent” follows the tragic and intertwining relationships between a group of eight friends living in New York City’s East Village over the course of a year. While characters in “La Boheme” were afflicted with tuberculosis, one of the major diseases of the late 19th century, the characters in “Rent” face life suffering from or under the shadow of HIV/AIDS. Throughout the musical, the epidemic runs just under the surface of the story as the group of friends forge and destroy loves and friendships, all the while dealing with both poverty and the overhanded policies of what today would be termed the “1 percent”.

Many musicals allow the audience to latch onto one or two main characters and follow them through the story, but “Rent” presents a challenge to those presenting it by creating a vast interweaving story that necessitates a large and talented cast. Fredonia’s students met that challenge head on and do a formidable job of bringing each character to life and making the audience believe in their relationships and their tragedies. Jordan Louis Fischer and Clayton Howe hold their own very well as Marc and Roger, the roommates that serve as the two primary characters throughout the show. Clayton had several standout songs in the show (“I Should Tell You” in particular) and Fischer continually steals the show with his quirky personality and spot-on camera work. Roger’s love interest, Mimi, is brought to life with a gymnastic flair by Ilana Lieberman – her writhing portrayal is electric throughout. Steven Saezler as Angel and Nakiya Peterkin as Joanne both grabbed my attention and didn’t let go and Kadeem Davis (as Tom Collins) and Alex Grayson (Benjamin) were quite effective, but top kudos have to go to Jaclyn Rahmlow, whose performance as Maureen is downright amazing in its raw intensity.

Rock musicals always bring certain challenges to a college production, both in sound reinforcement and in bringing a believable score to life stylistically without overpowering the singers and, for the most part, the production pulled these challenges off well. The house band, located on stage within the set itself, was ably directed by Raymond Stewart (who also played bass in the five-piece ensemble) and kept the energy hot from top to bottom. Sydney Thomas’s choreography was effectively natural, as many of the dance pieces were blended into the entire show that you were never sure when the dances started and stopped – one notable exception was “Maureen’s Tango”, performed with fire by Fischer and Peterkin.

The first thing that hits an audience member as they enter Marvel Theater is the massively intricate three-story set that covers the entire stage. Screens serve both as windows in the building where the musical is set but also as screens that project video being shot in real time by Fischer (a neat technical feat that adds a wonderful new dimension to the visual environment of the production. If that wasn’t enough, halfway through the first act, the elevator that seemed to be just a piece of scenery suddenly began to transport characters. Lit well by Jacob Brinkman’s lighting design, Hyla Sue Stellhorn’s scenic design does as much as anything in the production to transport the audience to the East Village, which was fitting as this will be the last musical to have a large set for the next few years due to the upcoming renovations of Rockefeller Arts Center.

Set for six performances, “Rent” promises to be a solid and enjoyable evening for anyone interested in contemporary musicals. The acting, singing, dancing, music, and sets combine for a visceral roller-coaster of an evening that will undoubtably move audiences in many ways and make one think as much as sing on the way home.

The performances will be at 7:30 p.m. today, Saturday and April 10-12. In addition there will be a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, April 6 with tickets being available at the SUNY Fredonia Ticket Office and at the door.

Rob Deemer

Associate Prof. of Music Composition