Though Jonathan Larson's musical Rent is loosely based on La Bohème, it often seems closer to soap opera than opera. Despite artfully negotiating much of Larson's interesting music — a mix of pop, rock and New Age recitative — Boiler Room Theatre's new mounting falls prey to a faltering, meandering book, naive thematic ideas and faux modern-day melodrama that can't be glossed over just because the talented cast continually breaks into yet another affecting anthemic group-sing.
Director Corbin Green's ensemble of 15 seems a bit too visually suburban for such a gritty, Gotham-centric piece. Nevertheless, the players usually perform with passion and purpose, and it's not their fault that Larson's opus is too long, exhibits obvious structural flaws (the author died before his own revisions might have been made) and now reads more like a '90s nostalgia piece rather than a social epic with serious staying power.
The story concerns struggling artists, the notion of selling out, and the idea of finding one's own place in the sun. Also love. And of course, drugs. And homosexuality and AIDS. There's also a Christmas theme, just to add a little poignance.
Ben Van Diepen and Ciarán McCarthy are sincere and worthy in their leading performances, and they receive similarly able support from vets such as Mike Baum and James Rudolph. Michael Holder shines as the ill-fated cross-dresser Angel, especially in the number "Today 4 U," and BRT first-timer Heather Trabucco renders a knockout version of the performance-art spoof "Over the Moon." Another BRT newcomer, Laura Matula, disappoints in the pivotal role of the waifish Mimi. Despite some vocal skills, her acting is self-conscious.
Happily for Rent fans, the big anthems — "La Vie Boheme," "Life Support," "Another Day," "Seasons of Love" and the title number — all get a decent workout, and musical director Jamey Green's combo includes two guitarists, Dale Herr and Matthew Woodruff, whose work adds a refreshing energy to the scoring.
At two and a half hours,
Rent certainly delivers its money's worth; if you're lucky, the actors might successfully distract you from the script's glaring flaws.
Free at last
More authentic than Rent's spurious yuppies is the new production of The Exonerated at Christ Church Cathedral. Director Ted Swindley has gathered a diverse local cast to tell the real-life stories of six falsely convicted prison inmates who were later freed via the slow-moving wheels of justice and the certitude of DNA evidence.
The inmates are toughly yet tenderly portrayed by Kenneth W. Dozier, Tobyus Green, Jason McGowan II, Ross Bolen, Michael Roark and Nettie Mae Kraft, and each performer cannily creates a distinctively credible persona, all of them united by their victimization and their wrongful incarceration.
Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's play is presented reader's theater style — scripts in hand, ready for reference — though the seated cast of 11 rarely relies on the direct printed word. The running time exceeds 90 minutes, without intermission, but the subject matter and engrossing characterizations remain compelling as we learn of the exonerated's lives, alleged crimes, trials, prison stays, circumstances surrounding their release, and aftermath.
Supporting players include Tamiko Robinson, Robert Marigza, Shane Bridges, Joy Tilley Perryman and Renard Hirsch, who convincingly fill in the ancillary roles of spouses, family, law enforcement, lawyers and witnesses.
The Exonerated presents somber and at times shocking material, and the moments of uplift are few. Yet these profiles in courage are nothing if not dramatic, making for great theater. The show continues through Oct. 16 in Cheek Hall at Christ Church Cathedral, 900 Broadway.
Nashville Children's Theatre's production of Bud, Not Buddy is another strong outing from the revered company, distinguished particularly by Nikkita Staggs' plucky performance as a young African-American orphan boy who searches for identity and roots in Depression-era Michigan. There's also a strong ensemble feel to Scot Copeland's production, with many in the cast making their NCT debuts. Generally speaking, an agreeable looseness infuses the staging, with more experienced players such as Aleta Myles, Jon Royal and Peter Vann offering particularly well-delineated characterizations. The story, scripted by Reginald Andre Jackson and based on Christopher Paul Curtis' award-winning novel, is by turns sad, humorous and ultimately positive in its affirmation of family ties. Plus there's a strong undercurrent of period jazz music. Of special note is the work of David Chattam — a rugged, leading-man type who is cast here as a grandfather, and who credibly embodies the role. Bud, Not Buddy continues through Oct. 17.
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