Wright State University impressively embraces the visceral power of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical “Rent.”
Director and Dayton native Scott Hunt, a member of the Broadway and national touring company of “Rent,” primarily gives this sung-through, AIDS-era retelling of Puccini’s “La Boheme” a gritty aggression absent in recent local productions. In fact, during the ensemble’s fantastic rendition of the title song, vigorously choreographed by Brandon Kelly and swelling to the hilt as if threatening to tear the roof off the Festival Playhouse, you can definitely feel the desperation, frustration and urgency dwelling within the residents of New York City’s East Village. Thankfully, Hunt’s penchant for atmosphere is evident throughout such as the flurry of activity that heightens “On The Street” and the exuberantly in-your-face “La Vie Boheme.” He also establishes an appealing sense of community among the colorful, uniquely engrossing characters, which allows the musical’s central themes of friendship and love to permeate at a deeper level.
As the emotionally tortured Roger Davis and uninhibited drug addict Mimi Marquez, Ben Street and Allison Kelly wonderfully navigate Larson’s invigorating sea of sentiments. Whether flirtatious (“Light My Candle”), at odds (“Another Day”), romantic (“I Should Tell You”) or disheartened (“Goodbye Love”), this compatible duo remains purposefully bonded. Individually, Street particularly infuses “Your Eyes” with gentle sensitivity while Kelly brings beautiful poignancy to “Without You.” There is also substantive work from the charming James Oblak as aspiring filmmaker Mark Cohen, Derrick Jordan (supplying a knockout reprise of “I’ll Cover You”) as the easygoing Tom Collins, terrific understudy Ian DeVine as the flamboyant, cross-dressing Angel Schunard, and the entertaining Lauren Bernstein (Maureen Johnson) who finds fresh humor within “Over the Moon.” However, Beth Ann Wipprecht (Joanne Jefferson) and Law Terrell Dunford (Benjamin Coffin III) fail to consistently ignite. Wipprecht’s priorities seem entirely grounded in the score instead of solidifying Joanne’s motivations. Dunford, a credible bully, is simply overshadowed by stronger voices and personalities.
Mark Beyer, Jason David Collins, Zach Cossman, Kenneth Foster, Melissa Hall, Tommi Harsch, Taryn Lemmons, Taylor Montgomery, Zachary Jordan Steele, Justin Talkington, and Ria Villaver (a comical Alexi Darling) complete the cast. Musical director Jay Brunner’s well-balanced orchestra, Eric Moore’s stark set comprised of scaffolding and graffiti, and Matthew P. Benjamin’s evocative lighting design are also noteworthy.
This week marks the 16th anniversary of Larson’s untimely death at the age of 35. Without question, WSU reminds us that his legacy will always endure.
“Rent” continues through Jan. 29 in the Festival Playhouse Stein Auditorium of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 80 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. The show contains adult language and themes. Tickets are $18-$20. For tickets or more information, call (937) 775-2500. In related news, Wright State has altered its 2012-13 season. The previously announced “Witness for the Prosecution” will be replaced by the return of the acclaimed“1913: The Great Dayton Flood,” originally presented in 1996.