Theater Review: RENT (Chance Theater)

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by William C. on August 6, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Rent by the late Jonathan Larson (tick, tick… BOOM!) is a musical theater phenom; productions are as ubiquitous as the stars in the firmament. The show is about a year in the life of bohemian artists struggling to survive, and if that sounds familiar, Larson based his 1996 rock musical on Puccini’s opera La Bohème, which contrasts lavish life with poverty and homelessness. In La Bohème, tuberculosis is rife, in Rent, it’s HIV in New York during the AIDS epidemic. An instant Off-Broadway sensation (partly due to Larson’s death just before opening night) Rent moved uptown and became the eleventh longest running show on Broadway. In Chance Theater’s extraordinarily well-cast production, the characters are all well-lived-in and the troupe’s chemistry shines with love, giving us many compelling moments. Director Matthew McCray has assembled a group of very talented and young actors with kinetic energy that dazzles. Thanks to the fantastic costumes by Bradley Allen Lock and multi-layered lights by Zach Moore (rivaling the design for Chance’s Tommy) the entire cast looked stunning on stage. Under the music direction of Lex Leigh (Ride the Cyclone), they sang from deep within the wells of sorrow and joy. This is a production that is rich in emotional expressions.

Jack Thomas Aitken, Christopher D. Baker, JoeJoe McKinney,
Gemma Pedersen, Autumn Kirkpatrick, Micah K. Blanks,
Gavin Cole, Frankie Ripley, and Lily Targett

With themes of love, friendship, poverty, HIV, and loss, Rent is filled with iconic characters. Struggling filmmaker and our neurotic narrator Mark (Luc Clopton) decides to document the struggle he and his roommate Roger (Gavin Cole) go through to produce art in a crumbling tenement apartment in the the lower east side, one that is owned by ex-friend Benny (Christopher D. Baker), who is threatening eviction. Mark’s film captures much more than he bargained for, encapsulating the besieged artistic community coming to grips with not just AIDS but drug addiction and self-expression. While the story is told through Roger’s lens, Rent is a true ensemble show. Even with an imperfect score, perhaps that is why people come back to see it again and again.

Gavin Cole and Lena Ceja

The duo are joined by Tom Collins (JoeJoe McKinney), a gay anarchist professor and his lover, a generous drag queen named Angel (Adam Leiva); lesbian lovers Joanne (Frankie Ripley) and performance artist and homeless activist Maureen (Lily Targett). In dance, character, and voice Lena Ceja is a revelation as Mimi, the smack-using pole dancer who is Roger’s love interest. The iridescent Leiva as Angel was a source of light throughout. Targett was a riot in the performance piece “Over the Moon”; Ripley gives a performance as JoAnne that makes the character rival Mr. Clopton’s Mark as the glue that holds the show together — her voice is sonorous and her stage presence strong — the great duet with Clopton, “Tango: Maureen,” is a standout.

Luc Clopton

The central characters are joined by a swirl of other men and women, mostly denizens of the East Village scene, played by Jack Aitken, Micah K. Blanks, Ayani Dorsey, Autumn Kirkpatrick, Patrick McCormick, Mikey Miro, and Gemma Pedersen. The joy in the iconic “La Vie Boheme” riotous dance scene was a party that came alive on the Cripe Stage.

Gavin Cole, Adam Leiva, and JoeJoe McKinney

But is exuberant and heartfelt enough to make a production soar? Rent is an endeavor to produce. First, there are kinks in the unfinished score — a work in progress that is frozen in time — that require a delicate touch to make the musical really work on stage. Rent is very much a product of its time, and if not dated, its urgency has faded. In that respect, I have mixed thoughts about this production. The crowded group scenes tend to overwhelm, and more attention could have been paid to focusing our attention on one specific character, and with Joe Holbrook‘s multi-leveled spread-out scenic design, there were quite a lot of sightline issues. Busy does not make for urgency. Large scenic elements and complex staging can prove to be more distracting than effective.

Lily Targett and Frankie Ripley

While there are some technical misses that I am inclined to attribute to opening night jitters and the nature of live theater, the one linchpin is Dave Mickey‘s sound design, which must have been a beast with a miked cast in such an intimate space. This isn’t the first time that a band’s volume got in the way of lyrics at The Chance, but here it was at times downright discordant.

Gavin Cole and Luc Clopton

Overall, as with any good production of Rent, the best part is always the electrifying chemistry that is very apparent on stage. You really can
feel the special bond that the cast is openly sharing on stage. Plus, the work will continue to resonate among young adults and artists in its portrayal of the incredible fear of death, the joys of new love, and the loss of creative spaces. It is awesome that Chance is producing a beloved musical such as Rent, especially because of the opportunity for storytelling that this musical offers to our young talent. I know that Chance will continue to tackle storytelling of this magnitude and diversity. Perhaps the next project, the theater can rely on the good old ’‘Less is More’ philosophy that it has always relied on. Do support your local theater and attend Rent. Because, well, there’s no day but today.

Adam Leiva, JoeJoe McKinney, and Luc Clopton

photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

Luc Clopton, Gavin Cole, and Christopher D. Baker

Chance Theater
Cripe Stage @ Bette Aitken theater arts Center, 5522 E. La Palma in Anaheim
Thu at 7:30; Fri & Sat at 8; Sat & Sun at 3
ends on August 20, 2023
for tickets ($25-$49), call 888.455.4212 or visit Chance

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