RENT Review: Julie Blaha

Julia Blahaby Julie Blaha

When I was a kid, what is now Lyric Arts was the movie theater and center of my adolescent arts scene.  They played every cool popcorn movie–Jaws, Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark–perfect for a fun night out for a middleschooler.

Once in a while, however, we fourteen-year-olds would be treated to something more substantial.  I remember the Friday night the theater showed The Outsiders. We’d settled in to our seats after a long walk catching up on the gossip of the week (the cool moms surreptitiously dropped us off five or six blocks away from the theater so we could walk in like adults).

We eleven, twelve, and thirteen year olds sat in the dark, laughing, crying and celebrating along with the hard luck kids on that screen. In the lobby, we discussed how cliques and class worked at our middle school. We wondered if our parents realized there was swearing and a couple adult themes in the film. Afterwards, we wandered looking for dad’s station wagon three streets over wiser and better people.

Today, I spend most of my entertainment dime in theaters in Minneapolis. I was happy that Lyric Arts opened in Anoka–mostly so I could say there are theaters in the suburbs to snobby hipsters in line at the Guthrie.  I assumed the shows would be the typical saccharine sweet, b-squad performances that make a joke of the term “community theater.” I bragged it up, while privately planning to never actually see a show.

A friend asked me to see RENT and I was intrigued.  The idea that a show with LGBT characters and challenging themes would play just blocks from one of the schools involved in the largest LGBT bullying lawsuit in U.S. history caught my attention.  I knew a couple of the actors from shows in the Cities. I’d heard the performances and staging were terrific.

Most of all, I was struck by how showing RENT was exactly what a “real” theater intent on serving our entire community would do. When mine was the third to the last ticket for a Thursday night show, I realized how hungry our community is for substantial productions.

I walked into the lobby and was immediately greeted by a group of fellow teachers from my district. I ran into more neighbors at the snack bar. Chatting with the people in the seats around me I realized I was part of a real community. Apart from the wine we were drinking and better seat layout, it felt much the same as it did when I was kid.

The lights went down and I was lost in the show. The music is terrific, the play beautifully written and the performances were as good as I’ve seen anywhere. Our Anoka crowd was moved to laughter, tears, and a standing ovation.

Filing out, the audience talked about how far we’ve come, and not come, since the AIDS epidemic first hit.  We wondered what hand wringing diatribes the usual suspects would write in the local paper. We appreciated the chance to see a show that mattered in our own community. We looked forward to using the show to buck the narrative that we are the backwards town portrayed in the press.

I walked back to my car, parked quite a ways away due to a sellout crowd, enjoying the afterglow of a great show, playing in just the right town at just the right time.

I’ll remember RENT as more than a wonderful play—it will always be the show that changed Lyric Arts from just a theater in my town to my town’s theater.

Julie Blaha is the former president of Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota and teaches at Jackson Middle School. She lives in Ramsey and serves on the boards for Education Minnesota and the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

RENT Review: Seasons of Love—Lyric Arts' Extraordinary Production of Rent

by Keith Roberts

Keith Roberts
Keith Roberts

One could easily dismiss Lyric Arts’ current production of RENT as just another community theatre attempting to contemporize their body of work.This production moves beyond any of those ideas. This production leaps on the stage with incredible energy from the start and winds it way into your heart and your mind leaving a powerful imprint on both.

The set design for the show, while looking pretty utilitarian, is really a strong visual metaphor of the lives of the cast as well as our own.The winding staircases, the lofting stage, the red and green lights creating a Christmas tree all help to remind us not only of the season but the starkness of the lives The choice of the garage style lights show the “nakedness” of the light.The use of bare tables again completes that idea that this cast really has nothing except each other.

The hallmarks of the production are not only the incredible cast, but also the nuance that director Matt McNabb brings to this production.As mentioned above, he uses the stage as tool to carry the story as much as the cast and libretto.The bare tables become so many pieces that propel the story.They are a restaurant table, a hospital bed, and the only furniture in Mark and Roger’s apartment.The most powerful scene in the production demonstrates this is during the song, “Without You.”The tables, now separate like the characters on them, allow McNabb to create the starkness of empty lives either by loss to a horrible illness or just through the emotional loss of a torn relationship.These are just a few of the simple but effective ways he turns ordinary into extraordinary.

The cast in the show is phenomenal.The abilities presented by this diverse cast would suggest experience beyond their years and experience levels.Kyler Chase carries Mark with the insecurity and the honest belief of human goodness that make Mark an everyman.Kyler acts with his heart and his whole physical presence.You see subtle character on his face, i.e., the way he carries himself, even how the camera becomes a physical part of him. He won me over from the onset.He has to carry the show and does it with seemingly little effort.

Kendall Thompson, who has done some high profile roles locally, embodies Maureen, the raging anarchist bisexual who wants to change their world but gets wrapped up in the world around her, especially if anyone pays any notice to her. Having seen Menzel in the role originally, Thompson steals the show with the performance art number, “Over the Moon.”You get the honest desire to elicit change but as well you see the need for constant attention that carries her role throughout the play.She is gritty, nasty, loving, and compassionate all at the same time, so is Maureen. She is electric, passionate, and can really belt a tune.

Kate Beahen’s Joanne may not be the most glamorous role she has had, but she is so committed to this role that in the opening number, Joanne’s frustration, character and angst are obvious.Joanne, always willing to take the backseat to Maureen’s whims, lets her have it with“Take me As I Am.”No longer willing to be Maureen’s convenience, she demands the love that she has given from the start of the show, Beahen, always the consummate actress, acts with every fiber of her being. The way she cocks her head, a warm, loving smile to greet Maureen, even the immediate disdain at having to work with Mark are told with her entire acting body. As for singing, she is one of the strongest in the show.She is a veteran in this performance, and her talent and expertise are apparent.

The toughest role in the show is Mimi—Courtney Groves is there 100%. The biggest question of the show is, "How does she dance in those heels?"Groves as Mimi brings the innocence of adolescence to the role of a street wise kid addicted who just wants love and security.She moves through the set like the cat she sings about. Her vocal ability is perfect for the growling songs and as well as the introspection of ” Without You”.She is able to maneuver the set, the songs, and the physicality with ease.

Don’t believe that those are the only strong things about the performances. If Patrick Jones’ reprise of “I’ll Cover You” doesn’t break your heart, you don’t have one. His range on that song is wide and his performance aching.Mary Jo Hall’s ending of the signature song “ Seasons of Love “ will knock you out of your seats. Kyle Szarzynski’s Angel comes off a little tentative, but once Jones arrives on the stage, you as well as Collins fall in love with Angel. She is the heart, the soul, the message of this story. The rest of the cast is vocally strong and incredibly talented. The band is incredible.You will feel like you’re at a rock concert or in McNabb’s words, “It’s a freaking rock opera!”It is and it’s the band that drives that energy.

RENT at Lyric Arts moves them from a community theater venue to the big leagues. This production rivals anything that Hennepin Trust and Theatre Latte Da have produced recently or anything locally at the McKnight or the other semi professional theaters in our community.Matt McNabb gets it, the cast gets it, the band get it.It’s your turn.It’s difficult not to leave this show thinking, ”I’d die for a taste of what Angel had.”

Roberts is a local community theater director, coach and teacher with 35 years of experience in the theater.

RENT Review: Girl Meets Broadway

by Erin Nagel

GirlMeetsBroadwayTwenty years ago the world was first introduced to Jonathan Larson’s rock opera RENT. Now a new generation of theatre fans are being introduced to RENT’s themes of love, family, finding your voice and living for today. Lyric Arts took a risk when they decided to produce this show. The themes are universal, but the topics covered can be considered controversial. Especially for a suburban theatre known for producing family friendly theatre. Director Matt McNabb honored the late Jonathan Larson with his vision and direction of this piece. Staying true to the show, McNabb didn’t make any adjustments to the language or storylines. He stayed true to the vision Larson had for this show. 

Not only did McNabb cast actors that embrace the iconic roles, but ones who are able to mold the role into their own. Kendall Anne Thompson brings a raw energy to her Maureen. I saw her once before in History Theatre’s Baby Case last Fall and loved her voice. But as Maureen she is force to be reckon with. She tackles the role and makes it her own. She provides a hip, modern approach to a character in a cult hit musical which can be tricky. Her voice is flawless. Her best scene is Maureen’s protest “Over the Moon”. During this scene she shines and truly showcases her incredible acting range. As Roger, Blake Rhiner provides the role with a much needed jaded feel. You can feel the longing of the much bigger dreams he holds than the reality he is currently facing in “One Song Glory”. His chemistry with Mimi (Courtney Groves) is strained, but I feel this helps showcase the emotional relationship they have. Its not a typical relationship since they are both dealing with their AIDs diagnosis and drug use. 

Lyric Arts made the right choice when they decided to take a risk with this production. Sharing this show with a new generation of theatre fans and allowing those who have seen it before to experience it all over again. If you have ever had the desire to check out RENT or if you’re a RENThead and want to see the show again I highly suggest you make the drive to Anoka to see this production. You won’t regret it. I promise it.

Erin Nagel is an active member of the Minneapolis theatre community and creator and editor of theatre review blog Girl Meets Broadway

RENT Review: The Halloween Honey

by Roxy Orcutt

Full-disclosure: I have never seen Rent, in fact, I wasn’t even all that familiar with the music.  Sure, I’ve heard Seasons of Love here and there, because, much like the Let It Go craze, you couldn’t really avoid the tune in the last 18 years it’s been around. The Rent experience was new to me, and I wasn’t disappointed. 

As usually, Lyric Arts made spectacular use of their stage space.  Since they lack the width of stage, they utilize the height.  Out of the nearly dozen shows I’ve seen at Lyric, I’ve never seen a bad set design, never a wasted space, never an unused corner.  Rent takes place in 1993 in New York City’s gritty West Village.  While a bohemian paradise filled with artists, the paradise is lacking one thing, money.  These characters embodied the term “starving artist.”  Our main characters find themselves living rent-free (by simply choosing to not pay it because they can’t) in an old, dilapidated loft that translates perfectly on stage.   

I’m glad I was able to see Rent for the first time with this cast so I wasn’t comparing them to the original Broadway cast or film version.  The filmmaker Mark and his casual cool scarf, the wannabe rock star Roger in tattered t-shirts and dangerously unkempt hair, the literal glitter bomb that is Mimi, the animalistic, artistic Maureen and the bossy, but well-meaning Joanne, just to name a few, were brought to life but such a talented cast, every last one who are in possession of some impressive pipes. And let’s not forget Angel, in all her candy-colored glory and sass, the literal heart of the show.  

Angel’s costumes looked like they came straight out of a 1990’s dance music video fever dream, and those weren’t the only costume pieces causing a little nostalgia.  Now a period piece, the costumers of Rent have their work cut out of them to dress these characters in clothes that look authentic to twenty years ago.  While I personally remember 1993 pretty well (I was ten) there are people now seeing the show for the first time that may not even have been alive during the entire decade of the ‘90’s and I think the costuming on this show showcases the fashion of decade very well, especially for those living a by circumstance shabby chic lifestyle. 

The themes of love, friendship and support, as well as dealing with issues such as illness and poverty are beautifully portrayed in the show and the actors took great care to do this amazing work justice, and they, along with the entire production crew and musicians should be proud of the amazing work they’ve done.  Rent lives up to the hype and I now see why it garners such devotion among fans.  This production at Lyric Arts is not to be missed.  

Roxy Orcutt

Roxy Orcutt

Roxy Orcutt, otherwise known as The Halloween Honey, is a local blogger and author.

RENT Opening Weekend: Twitter has spoken!

Lyric Arts' Twitter feed blew up this weekend thanks to all the excitement surrounding our opening weekend. Thanks to all who tweet, follow, favorite, and retweet!

Dig Deeper - What's Your RENT Story?

PremiereImage_RentFor many of us who have pursued a life in theater, there are key moments in our lives when we remember the impact of viewing a particular play or musical.  As a child growing up in a small town in Iowa, I didn't get a lot of opportunities to attend new plays, so one of those moments came when Iowa Public Television showed a live videotaping of the Broadway production of Into the Woods starring Bernadette Peters.  I remember thinking, "Now, here's an exciting musical!  Someone who finally asked the question - what happens after happily ever after?  I want to do this!" These moments are different for each individual, but there are some productions that resonate with an entire generation.  RENT was just such a show and we're looking for YOUR stories about this revolutionary musical and its impact on you.  I'm starting things off with a reprint of an article from the New York Times by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Please feel free to add your stories in the comments section below!  We look forward to hearing from you.