by 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.