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Toby’s Dinner Theater Rent

By • Oct 5th, 2010 • Category: Reviews
Rent by Jonathan Larson
Toby’s Dinner Theater
Toby’s Dinner Theater-Columbia, Columbia, MD
Through November 14th
3:00 with one intermission
$47-$52/$33.50 Children
Reviewed October 1st, 2010

Jonathan Larson’s magnum opus rock musical, Rent, is a semi-autobiographical tribute to starving artists living with the specters of HIV/AIDS and drugs. Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, the musical tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in the thriving days of Bohemian Alphabet City, a neighborhood located within the Lower East Side and East Village of Manhattan.

Rent was so popular, before the end of the year it moved to Broadway and was the recipient of a multitude of awards including four Tonys, six Drama Desk and three Obie awards, not to mention the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The show, eighth-longest on Broadway, has the distinction of being the first since Hair to bring young audiences to the Great White Way, and bears more than a passing resemblance to Hair in its presentation of the contemporary youth counterculture and its expressions of joy and pain. Rent‘s popularity eventually brought almost the entire original cast from the Broadway show to recreate their roles for the big screen.

It’s stunningly ironic that Larson never saw the phenomenon he achieved. At the age of 35 Larson died of an aortic aneurysm, the morning of his show’s first off Broadway preview performance, making his song Seasons of Love, about love and loss in the course of a year, especially poignant.

There are some distinct similarities between the opera and this gritty, urban update, including a reworking of Musetta’s Waltz, which figures heavily during the first part of the show, and the candle scene that introduces Mimi (MaryLee Adams). A strip club dancer and addict, Mimi’s passionate desire for Roger eventually overcomes his inability to connect with life.

Impeccable performances by Mark (Nick Lehan), artisan filmmaker and Roger (Greg Twomey), fallen rock star and former junkie, Collins (Kevin McAllister) modern age philosopher and anarchist, and Benny (David Gregory) their former roommate, now a sell-out real estate developer, lead to the title song and starting this show off with a bang.

Angel (Bryan Daniels), a street-wise plastic can drummer with a penchant for high fashion, higher heels and a heart of gold does a terrific job of keeping everyone together until the AIDS virus takes hold.

Heather Marie Beck gives as good as she gets with her take on Joanne, a lawyer entangled in this group by her relationship with Maureen. Beck’s work is hot enough working with Lehan in “Tango Maureen” but she sizzles when combined with Mary Searcy, playing performance artist Maureen (the role that launched Idina Menzel’s career). Searcy makes the role entirely her own.

You may recognize a few of these faces if you’ve seen other productions at Toby’s. There are also some familiar faces for folks who saw Keegan Theatre’s award-winning 2009 production of Rent. In general, the ensemble is superb, top-notch, as I’ve come to expect from Toby’s productions. The production is co-directed by Toby Orenstein and Kevin McAllister, with musical direction from Christopher Youstra and choreography by Kurt Boehm.

David A. Hopkins’ set, scaffolding platforms reconfigured as needed, and Coleen M. Foley’s rock-show lighting make for a clean, spare, design gives the audience the sense of humanity trapped in a cage. Costumes look just right for the late ‘80s, the period when Larson first started working on the show, just at the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The only flaw in this spectacularly performed production has to do with Toby’s sound system. In what should have been a sizzling hot first connection between Mimi and Roger during Light My Candle, Adams’ microphone failed and we lost virtually all of Mimi’s song. Her mic was fixed before her next number, but the band remained a bit too loud to hear and understand all the lyrics throughout the show.

I know the music well enough that it was nearly impossible for me to resist singing along with the rest of the cast, but folks who haven’t seen it yet might want to do a bit of research on the show before seeing it. Hopefully, the sound problem was an opening night issue and that all the remaining performances will have much better sound balance between the musicians and the actors.

A caution to parents: This production includes strong adult language and situations and is not recommended for children.

Program Notes

Jonathan Larson’s rock musical, Rent is the eighth-longest-running Broadway show in history. Rent is based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Boheme. It tells a story of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York’s Lower East Side in the thriving days of Bohemian Alphabet City, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.

Rent is also a somewhat autobiographical work, as Larson incorporated many elements of his life into his show. Larson lived in New York for many years as a starving artist with an uncertain future. He sacrificed a life of stability for his art, and shared many of the same hopes and fears as his characters. Part of the motivation behind the storyline in which Maureen leaves Mark for a woman (Joanne) is based on the fact that Larson’s own girlfriend left him for another woman.

But the length of its run is not nearly as significant as the kind of show it is. Rent brought a youthful energy – and young theatergoers – to Broadway, to a degree not seen since Hair. It also brought with it a real-life story so affecting that it would have overwhelmed the musical itself had the substance of the musical not been so intertwined with the story of its creation.

On the night of the final dress rehearsal at the New York Theater Workshop, the nonprofit theater in the East Village where the musical began, Jonathan Larson, the 35-year-old composer and librettist, died of an aortic aneurysm. He had been working for seven years on the musical, which includes portraits of his friends and the artists and addicts in his neighborhood, young people on the edge of poverty and in the shadow of AIDS, battling the coming wave of gentrification in the name of “La Vie Boheme.” The signature song, “Seasons of Love” is often associated with World AIDS Day and AIDS awareness because four of the lead characters of Rent have HIV or AIDS.

It went on to win four Tony Awards, including best musical, and the Pulitzer Prize.

The Cast (in Order Of Appearance)

  • Mark Cohen: Nick Lehan
  • Roger Davis: Greg Twomey
  • Tom Collins: Kevin McAllister
  • Benjamin Coffin III: David Gregory
  • Joanne Jefferson: Heather Marie Beck
  • Angel Dumott Schunard: Bryan Daniels
  • Mimi Marquez: MaryLee Adams
  • Maureen Johnson: Mary Searcy
  • Ensemble:
  • Kelli Blackwell (Joanne U/S), Katie Brobst (Mimi U/S), Conrad Buck, Chad Fornwalt (Roger U/S), Crystal Freeman, Deborah Lubega, Jennie Lutz (Maureen U/S), Michael Robinson (Collins U/S), Dan Sonntag, Vishal Vaidya (Benny U/S), Matthew Wojtal (Mark & Angel U/S)

Orchestra

  • Conductor/Piano: Christopher Youstra or Cedric Lyles
  • Keyboard: Ann Prizzi or Ed Myers
  • Guitar: Kim Spath or Jason Wise
  • Bass: Linda Cote, Frank Higgins or Andrew Webb
  • Drums: Aaron Holmes, Tom Harold or Anders Eliasson

Production Staff

  • Directors: Toby Orenstein/Kevin McAllister
  • Musical Director: Christopher Youstra
  • Set Designer: David A. Hopkins
  • Costume Designer: Janine Sunday
  • Lighting Designer: Coleen M. Foley
  • Sound Designer: Drew Dedrick
  • Choreographer: Kurt Boehm
  • Film: Kate Wackerle, Sam Wackerle
  • Production Manager: Vickie S. Johnson
  • Production Stage Manager: Kate Wackerle
  • Stage Managers: Drew Dedrick, Kate Wackerle
  • Dance Captain: MaryLee Adams
  • Technical Director/Master Electrician: Jimmy Engelkemier
  • Master Carpenter: Jason Krznarich
  • Set Construction: Corey Brown, Jason Krznarich, Russell Sunday
  • Properties and Set Dressing: Amy Kaplan
  • Light Board Operators: Cheryl Hale, Coleen M. Foley, Erin MacDonald
  • Sound Board Operators: Drew Dedrick, Jimmy Engelkemier
  • Stage Crew: Danny Clemens, Ashley Grant, Erin MacDonald

Theatre Staff

  • Artistic Director: Toby Orenstein
  • Associate Artistic Directors: David A. Hopkins, Lawrence B. Munsey
  • General Manager: Joel Friedman
  • Assistant Manager: Patrick Albright
  • Form Manager: Steve Lewis
  • Chef / Kitchen Manager: Chuck Cofield
  • Chef / Assistant Kitchen Manager: Anthony Beachum
  • Director of Group Sales / Tour and Travel: Cheryl Clemens
  • Assistant Director of Group Sales / Tour and Travel: Audrey Kyle
  • Group Sales Hosting Staff: Heidi Berry, Bonnie Ciborowski, Sandy Ciborowski, Danny Ciborowski, Paula Jones, Marsha Raymond
  • Director of Marketing: Nancy Michel
  • Box Office Manager: Judy Abrams
  • Box Office Staff: Judy Berry, Laura Blasi, Mary Dempsey, Lynae Harris, Breena Hebron, Estelle King, Marie Moineau
  • Bookkeeper: Bayna Castner
  • Youth Theatre Administrator: Toba Barth
  • Theatre Photographer / Website Developer: Kirstine Christiansen
  • Poster Art: Mia Williams
  • Bar Manager: Shawn Kettering
  • Maintenance Engineers: Stephen B. Harris, Mike Monahan

Disclaimer: Toby’s Dinner Theater provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is founder and Artistic Director of OutOftheBlackBox Theatre Company (O2B2) and General Manager of the Greenbelt Arts Center. Since 2006 Betsy has worked as a director, producer, designer and more. Betsy has also worked with Washington Revels, Arena Stage, the now-defunct Harlequin Dinner Theatre and with community theatre companies both in Maryland and in upstate New York. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Technical Theatre from SUNY New Paltz. Through Hawkeswood Productions, Betsy produces archival performance videos and YouTube highlight spots.

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