Review: ‘Rent’ at Sunnyvale Community Players is faithful, effective

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The Bohemians from the East Village of New York City go through love, loss and disease in Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” through May 1st at Sunnyvale Community Players. (Photo by Chris Berger)

There are few theatre productions more unique than a production of “Rent.” The first time I saw the show was on a national tour, just before I started doing the critic thing. Even though it was enjoyable, I do admit feeling a bit lost because everything, and I mean everything, was food for heavy emoting, and everyone seemed to know what was happening. My brother even mentioned when he went to see the same production, a woman behind him just cried the entire time.

It certainly has an aura, in large part based on the tragic death of the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, who wrote the music and lyrics to the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, based on opera composer Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Larson, who passed away in 1996 on the day of the show’s first off-Broadway preview, was only 36.

It’s hard for me not to reflect on that life whenever I have seen or even directed the show. It certainly was with me when I sat inside the theatre of the Sunnyvale Community Players, who have produced a well-executed version of the show. And while there may have been some imbalance in vocal texture in moments, an intimate theatre space certainly helped the assist the visceral urgency of the piece.

The ensemble cast certainly swung for the fences, staged with a certain minimalist flow by director Matt Welch. The canvas for his mid-1990’s anthem, a set designed with great, simplistic touch. There are a few scaffolds that double as doorways, televisions scattered downstage and the band that’s kind of gathers stage right as if setting up an impromptu jam session rather than shred out a Broadway play. Various characters saunter throughout the space, and ultimately begin the show with the iconic date and time stamp that Anthony Rapp has admitted receiving in various social media platforms annually.

These are the kinds of Brechtian touches that nicely inform the production as a whole. Larson’s East Village is one of rock shows and artist living, not the one now where the building that housed CBGB is an upscale clothing store. His characters also make up the creative fabric of the area – people such as the brooding Roger (a deep turn by Matt Waters), the pensive Mark Cohen (a charming Adam Cotugno), the wounded Mimi (a committed Danielle Mendoza) and sultry Cyber Land resident Maureen (Jessica LaFever). The various stories that are generated throughout the piece are certainly effective in their compelling detail, informed by AIDS and AZT pills. Things like paying the actual rent, finding value in creating art, or deciding when it’s the right time to sell out your morals in order to make a lot of ker-ching, ker-ching all factor in the decisions each character faces.

The individual performances of the piece were very solid, with a mostly connected chemistry. Probably the most truthful and real relationship takes place between Tom Collins (a rich tenor range by Adrien Gleason) and the gold-hearted Angel (dancing marvel Dedrick Weathersby). Theirs is a relationship that is devoid of the high strung nature of Maureen and whoever, or the toxic, loving mix of a Roger and Mimi. Rather, with a warm gentle commitment to the arc, both Weathersby and Gleason have brought forth truth, which sets up a most tragic payoff.

“Rent” has a soundtrack that is quite the hit parade, and songs were handled with aplomb by the ensemble cast, certainly music that is challenging by many standards, a rock musical that can be considered a rock opera based on its non-stop singing. Numbers like “Take Me or Leave Me,” between LaFever and Naomi Evans as Joanne, had all the vicious smoke associated with it, along with others such as “Tango Maureen,” “Santa Fe” “One Song Glory” and “Seasons of Love.”

I would assume many people who are “Rent” fans would certainly go to any production just to judge it based on their favorite songs, and I certainly have my own numbers that get all the love in my vehicle. “I’ll Cover You Reprise” certainly fit the bill, Gleason digging deep nicely to reflect the mood of losing such a beloved character that changed his life. “I Should Tell You,” “Without You” “Goodbye Love,” “Halloween” and “Your Eyes” hit the right notes literally and figuratively, telling lovely stories in each moment.

While “Rent” is certainly something that has been done and done again, it never loses its message, many companies turning the tragedy of Larson’s death into a mission for social change through the production. And with the recent spate of some significant passings (Prince passed away the day I attended), Larson was something of a prophet in regards to how he wanted his show to be received.

“It’s not how many years you live, but how you fulfill the time you spend here,” Larson told the New York Times. “That’s sort of the point of the show.”

Point taken.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Sunnyvale Community Players presents “Rent”
Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Based on the opera “La Boheme” by Giacomo Puccini
Directed by Matt Welch
The Word: A hit parade created by the late Jonathan Larson, SCP creates a faithful and moving interpretation of Larson’s opus.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Sunnyvale Community Center
550 East Remington Drive, Sunnyvale, CA
Through May 1st
Tickets range from $14 – $30
For tickets, call (408) 733-6611 or visit sunnyvaleplayers.org

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