Theater Review: RENT (Palm Canyon Theatre)

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by Barry Schoenfeld on October 31, 2023

in Theater-Palm Springs (Coachella Valley),Theater-Regional


Jonathan Larson’s Rent is in a musical theater empyrean; indeed, 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 1997 work 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. Given the awesome music and lyrics, it may appear an easy show to mount. Not true. It requires thoughtful (and difficult) casting, great singers in many roles, and a keen eye on how to present a decisive moment in our history, one which will be new to some younger audience members. The new production at Palm Springs’ Palm Canyon Theatre does an admirable job.

Struggling filmmaker Mark decides to document the trials he and his roommate Roger go through to produce art in a crumbling tenement apartment in the the lower east side. His 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. Perhaps that is why people come back to see it again and again. The score itself is not perfect (Sondheim called it a “work-in-progress frozen in time”) and could use some tweaking, which it surely would have received had not Jonathan Larsen suddenly died on the preview’s opening night.

J.W. Layne’s excellent set and use of simple tables (in every possible formation) allows director Luke Rainey a myriad of possible scenarios on a single set, which even manages to tuck in the four-piece orchestra on stage. Unfortunately, Layne’s lighting design was a headscratcher with scenes in almost total darkness for no dramatic purpose, followed by scenes illuminated with a hot, white follow spot (at least we could see the actors). While one or two performers sounded clear and solid – Patrick Wallace’s Mark and Jovi Olivas’ Mimi —  Ben Reece’s Roger could only now and then be heard, and Dwayne Arvinger’s Tom Collins rarely carried past the first row. We have to ask, is the inaudibility Nick Campbell’s sound design or the performers inability to project? Sotto voce portions need to be heard every bit as well as full-out blasts. Sometimes, orchestra leader Jaci Davis‘s count off could be heard more clearly than the vocals that followed.

As for performances, Wallace as Mark was the standout of the evening. From his first note to his last, he inhabited the role 110%. Voice, energy and attitude made him a delight to watch. Even when the spotlight was not on him, he never dropped character or lost focus with the scene. As Mimi, Olivas  – who filled in astonishingly well for an ailing Allegra Angelo with only 72 hours notice – has a marvelous voice and great stage presence. We only wished for a little more vulnerability in some scenes – Mimi is not always a fierce warrior.

The character of Maureen, based on the character Musetta in La Bohème, is here a performance artist and former girlfriend of Mark, who dumped him for a woman. It’s hard to pick out a favorite portion of Christine Michele‘s vibrant, bursting and satirical portrayal, but her rendition of “Over The Moon” was hysterical. Her elastic body flailing in all directions seemingly at once was perfect as an over-the-top 80s performance artist.

The talented cast includes Travis Creston Detwiler as Angel, Christine Michele as Maureen Johnson, April Mejia as Joanne Jefferson, Raul Valenzuela as Benny Coffin III. The ensemble members are L.T. Cousineau, Jana Giboney, Jessica Lenz, Dani Jara Lesaca, Robert Lesaca, Jackie Padgett, Sonny Von Cleveland and Sanai Wright.

Taking some fumbles into account, this production of Rent tells the story well, and underscores the important message, as old as its source may be: It’s all about the present — “No day but today.”

photos by Carlos Mendoza

Palm Canyon Theater, 538 North Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs
Thurs at 7; Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on November 12, 2023
for tickets ($17-$38), visit PCT

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