Review: Despite a few technical glitches, Columbus troupe electrifies theater with Jonathan Larson classic
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Jonathan Larson’s classic rock opera Rent seems to have cast a spell on the city of Columbus. Not one, but two local theater companies are concurrently staging the ode to New York City Bohemian living and the AIDS epidemic.
Center Stage Players is presenting their second sold-out weekend of Rent this week at Axis Nightclub, 775 N. High Street, Columbus, and the popular rock ‘n’ roll/sketch comedy troupe Shadowbox Live, 164 Easton Town Center, Columbus, is also in the midst of their Rent run. I had the pleasure of attending Shadowbox’s sold-out opening night March 6 and thought I’d offer my two cents on the showcase. (I have tickets to Center Stage’s last night of Rent this Sunday, but by then, writing about it will be a mute point. But do head to Axis this weekend if you’re in the Central Ohio area. Shadowbox’s run is Sundays through April 17.)
My history with Rent goes back about five years, when I first saw the play live. The national tour made a special sold-out stop at Ohio University, my alma mater. It was love at first sight. I subsequently bought the 2005 movie version, wore it out from watching it so much that I had to buy another, and did the same thing with the 2008 live recording. Center Stage’s show’s on Sunday will be my sixth time seeing the show live. I wouldn’t call myself a “Renthead,” as the show’s most ardent fans are referred, but I would say my love for the show definitely runs deep.
So, naturally when I heard Shadowbox was doing Rent, my first thought was the ever tried and true saying, recently made famous by RuPaul, “Don’t f$%k it up!” And I must proudly declare, they didn’t. If anything, with the band’s new arrangement and director Stev Guyer’s stellar casting, it felt like that exhilarating first time back at OU.
For those unaware (and how dare you be!), Rent follows the lives of eight artistic friends struggling to makes ends meet in 1990 New York City. Four of the eight main characters are also living with AIDS. Which brings me to my first favorite part of Shadowbox’s particular Rent showcase. Prior to the show, a video projection flashes historic facts about HIV and AIDS in America, providing beautifully rich education about a topic that seems to be swept under the rug. And I’ve also heard through the grape vine that the troupe is donating part of the run’s proceeds to the Columbus AIDS Task Force, and have made arrangements for the task force’s employees to see the show for free. Kudos to Shadowbox for adding a socially conscious layer to their show.
My second favorite part? Three words: Nikki, Valerie and Jerrod. These are the first names of actors who played Mimi, Maureen and Collins, receptively. And also the three people who not only gave stellar performances, but blew my fucking socks off (please excuse my French).
I have a long history with reviewing Shadowbox’s shows, and this is Nikki Fagin’s magnum opus. She perfectly embodies the raw emotions of Mimi, a heroine-addicted stripper, and one of the characters living with AIDS. She beautifully belts “Out Tonight,” adds an angst-ridden fire to “Another Day” and infuses “Without You” with such innocent frailty that more then a few patrons were choking back tears (including myself).
Valerie Whitherspoon, an import from the company’s Newport, Ky., branch, is the perfect quirky blend of personality and powerhouse vocals needed for the role of the bisexual actor/protester Maureen. I must admit I’m not usually a fan of the “Over the Moon” segment of the show, but Valerie’s high-energy and pitch perfect vocal made me love it for the first time. And she just keeps impressing all night. Her duet with Kara Wilkinson (also a Newport transplant, who plays uptight, lesbian lawyer JoAnne) is the night’s best vocal performance. Those two ladies lay it all out on the stage for a moment that is theater gold. Your $30 ticket is paid for after that one performance. However, due to technical difficulties Whitherspoon’s solo during Seasons of Love was the best vocal no one heard. But lucky for me I had a cushy seat up front and was able to catch most of her vocal prowess during the popular tune.
Jerrod Roberts hits it out of the park with his portrayal of the lovesick, do-gooding professor Tom Collins. His chemistry with Tom Cardinal (who plays the street-preforming drag queen Angel, also Collins’ love interest) was palpable during “I’ll Cover You,” and then gut-wrenching as we watch Collins watch Angel deteriorate from AIDS right before his eyes. He second-act aria on “I’ll Cover You Reprise” didn’t leave a dry eye in the house.
Cardinal also steels a few scenes of his own, especially with his upbeat dance number during “Today For You,” in full drag regalia. Brandon Anderson dons a killer brood as former rocker Roger, shining most during “One Song Glory.” And John Boyd is pure delight as Mark, the unassuming filmmaker and the play’s narrator. Boyd refreshingly adds a comedic self-deprecation to Mark that I haven’t really seen before. (He also ironically looks just like Anthony Rapp, who originated the role on Broadway.) Anderson and Boyd are also from the Newport cast. (I might have to make a trip to Kentucky someday, sounds like they’ve got some amazing talent down there.)
Supporting players Jamie Barrow and Noelle Grandison lead the homeless chorus with brilliant vocal depth as well. [Note to Guyer: (Yes, Stev, I’m talking to you) Why have you been hiding Barrow on the comedy side? Make him a lead singer too. The dude can blow.]
The entire production was a true treat for the eyes and the ears. Live video projections from Mark’s camera accompanied the play throughout, which I’ve also never seen done before, but enjoyed immensely. And the five-man band was equally brilliant (as BillWho? typically is), lead by guitarist Matthew Hahn, whose guitar-heavy arrangements also added another refreshing new layer to the show. Katy Psenicka’s inventive dance routines (more welcome additions) and Brea Badger’s period-perfect grudge-rock costumes enhance an already stellar showcase.
But, truthfully the night was riddled with technical issues. Mics were often dropped, forcing you to strain to hear at times and a faulty sound system even made it difficult to hear the band. (But hopefully all of this will be remedied when the troupe makes their big move downtown.)
I, like most, was devastated when Rent officially closed on Broadway back in 2008 (there are reports that it’s returning to Off-Broadway later this year), but am thrilled that there are troupes like Shadowbox with the talent and the guts to do the Jonathan Larson classic justice.