Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's recent review of On Golden Pond
Rent is set in Manhattan's gritty Alphabet City in the East Village in the 1990s and tells the story of a tight-knit group of eight struggling friends as they deal with love and loss over the course of a single year.
Larson based his musical on Puccini's 1895 opera La Bohême, changing the setting from the poor, bohemian location of Paris to the poor but artsy Lower East Side of Manhattan and using the tragedy of AIDS instead of tuberculosis. Larson even used a few notes from Musetta's Waltz in La Boheme in his score to connect the two together. The pop/rock score and the way modern topics and issues, gay characters, and young individuals struggling to find their place in life are incorporated into the book and lyrics spoke to a young generation as well as seasoned theatregoers. That Larson died right before the show's first performance Off Broadway, so he never able to make any tweaks in the show, means there are a few rough spots, some characters that could be more clearly defined, and a few lyrics and situations that could have been better stated.
While there were some technical challenges on opening night, mainly due to an errant sound system and some glitches in the light design, the Desert Stages cast are quite good, with solid stage presence, clear portrayals, and respectable singing voices, although some struggle slightly due to the heavy demands of the rock score. As Mark, the show's narrator, Jeremy Yampolsky elicits the appropriate levels of compassion and doubt for a young man who begins to wonder if the reason he's alone is because he'll be the only one to survive and to document their lives. Yampolsky played this part several years ago in a youth theatre production and his stage presence and vocal abilities have only gotten stronger over the years. As Roger, the ex-rocker who feels his life is over since he's been diagnosed with HIV, David Samson has the right look, rough singing voice, and frustrated line delivery. Josephine Maldonado is excellent as Mimi, the young drug addict who falls for Roger. Her raw yet clear singing voice brings a sense of power and passion to this young woman.
As Maureen, Mark's ex who is a performance artist, Corgan Atkins elicits strength and a beautiful sense of independence. Her performance number in the show is a major highlight. With a powerful stage presence, clear connection with her fellow cast mates, and a rich singing voice, Shaylee Flanagan is wonderful as Joanne, the woman Maureen is now with. Christopher Poulios is touching, compassionate, and warm as Tom Collins, Roger and Mark's former roommate. Donovan Reza is bright and fun as drag queen Angel, Collins' partner, and Eeshan Kumar does a great job depicting the sense of style, power, and authority that having money provides as the show's main antagonist, Benny. The large ensemble manage quite well in the various small supporting roles in the show.
Co-directors Mark and Lynzee 4man instill an appropriate sense of importance and urgency in the production with a cast who create believable portrayals. Their staging makes good use of Rick Sandifer's multi-level set, although two movable elevated levels that are used in a few moments are somewhat clunky to move around the stage, and having the cast climb up to the top level, while singing, is slightly distracting. They've also added some fresh and original directorial choices, most of which work well, including a truly wonderful way to depict Maureen's performance piece. Lynzee 4man incorporates slightly more choreography than I've seen in other productions of this show, which is both good and bad, as, for instance, in "Tango: Maureen," having additional dancers on the stage takes the focus somewhat away from Mark and Joanne. Mark 4man's music direction and the small on-stage band provide a great sound to the production.
Rent is a beloved musical with a great score, and Desert Stages' production has a cast who deliver honest, realistic, and sincere portrayals of these memorable characters. While the show is slightly dated, its message of how important friendship in tackling your issues still resonates strongly today.
Rent runs through August 6, 2023, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre at Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information, please visit desertstages.org or call 480-483-1664.
Co-directors: Mark and Lynzee 4man