Genesius’ ‘Rent’ is worth the price
Powerful, provocative and poignant are just a few words to describe Genesius Theatre’s current production, “Rent,” but there really aren’t enough superlatives to characterize the caliber of the cast, lighting, set and choreography of this Tony and Pulitzer-Award winning musical set in New York City in the ’90s.
With its dark and dangerous setting in Alphabet City and its characters dealing with homelessness, drug addiction, poverty and AIDS, you’d think its tone might be extremely dark, and at times it is, but there are also moments of hope and humanity that take it to a whole new level.
The plot, akin to Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” involves characters who are creative and passionate people, struggling to find their way. They are unique and talented, just like the extraordinary cast that director L.J. Fecho has brought together for his show.
I have seen many of the cast members in various previous roles, but each one has taken his or her performance to new heights in “Rent.”
Caleb Anthony often creates hysterically funny characters, but as Mark, the aspiring filmmaker, he demonstrates he also has the chops to deliver Jonathan Larson’s powerful lyrics and music, including the title song “Rent” and “La Vie Boheme A” with the cast. His comedic skills, as always, shine in the memorable duet, “Tango Maureen,” with Davina Lopez, a newcomer to Genesius, whose powerful vocals really standout, particularly in her solo, “We’re Okay.”
Lopez’ other duet with CC Cooper as Maureen, a promiscuous performance artist who is her lover, is another high point of the show. The two deliver an intense musical lovers’ quarrel in “Take Me or Leave Me,” as they circle around each other as if squaring up for a fight. Cooper also shines in a dynamite version of “Over The Moon,” Maureen’s sexy performance piece at a protest rally.
Drew Boardman, who delivered a fine performance in last year’s “Carrie: The Musical,” totally amazed me as Collins, described as “an anarchist professor
with AIDS.” The role gives him a chance to demonstrate his considerable acting talent, but also show off his vocal skills in numbers like “Santa Fe” and the tender ballad, “I’ll Cover You,” a duet with the amazing Michael Roman, as Angel.
Roman definitely steals the show as the self-described drag queen, whose exuberance, flamboyance and compassion endear him to his hard-luck neighbors. He is at the heart of a circle of friends that makes this show so special. Roman is a high-energy dynamo whose numbers like “Today For You” add zest to the show, but his portrayal of Angel also gives him the chance to show his serious side as in the dramatic “Contact.” It is the on-stage chemistry and believability of the relationship between Boardman and Roman that makes “Rent” feel real.
Jordan Baylor plays Roger, a rock musician in search of writing “One Great Song,” who is Mark’s roommate. Since his girlfriend’s suicide, he has withdrawn. His delivery of “Your Eyes,” one of the most memorable songs from the show, is haunting. He also performs some beautiful duets with Kristan Pagliei who plays Mimi, an exotic dancer who is HIV positive. They include “Light My Candle,” “I Should Tell You,” and the unforgettable “Without You.”
The staging of the latter is one of the most emotional in the show as Roger and Mimi sing to each other as Collins cares for a dying Angel in the background. There were definitely tears in the audience for this one.
Joe Swaggerty plays Benjamin Coffin III (Benny), a former roommate who has “sold out” and now is the landlord to his old friends. Swaggerty’s Benny is charming as the villain if the piece. He plays key roles in the title song and in “You’ll See.”
The most memorable songs in the show are the ones involving the entire company — “La Vie Boheme A and B,” “Seasons of Love” and “Finale” with its inspiring lyric “No Day But Today.” They are the ones that make “Rent” a joyous experience, because despite its dark and uncomfortable subject matter, its underlying message of hope and acceptance is one that still rings true.
Delivering those songs are some of the area’s most talented singers. The ensemble includes Amy Hu- dak, Kelly Schmehl, Susie DeBooth, Nicholas Freer, Bo Irwin, Sabrina Paulino, Shey Bogumil, Briana Christie, Mamie Covell, Raina Daynorowicz, Kimmie Fetters, Bee Gracius, Dara Himes, Kaitlyn Reber, Elizabeth Siani, Kara Snyder, Maya Spragley, Lyndsey Bosold, Rosanna Sani Pereira, Evan Nelson, Jessie Hoffman, Taylor Clark, Matt Cole, Ben Stock and Riley Pearson.
The creative team behind this production, in addition to Fecho, includes Kevin Cooper, musical director; Simmon E. Gage, assistant director; Jennifer Parker Scott, choreographer; Spencer Moss Fecho, Nick Covell and L.J. Fecho, lighting design; Kathi Christie, stage manager; and Jessica Reber, Kaitlyn Reber and Joe Swaggerty creating the scenic art.
The musicians who pro- vide the audio backdrop for everything happening on stage are Franklyn Fraser – bass, Alex Price – guitar, Dave Neel - keyboard 2, Christopher Sperat - keyboard 1 and Matthew Phillips – drums.
Director L.J. Fecho said he wanted to bring back the edge to this show, and he has definitely succeeded. The production, with its spectacular lighting effects, graffiti-laden set and dynamic choreography, do the original justice. The few scenes with partial nudity also bring back that edge, and evoke the Bohemian and irreverent spirit of the era.
What makes “Rent” really special are the dedicated cast members and crew who project a feeling that is much more than camaraderie, it’s family -- and that bond is palpable.
“Rent” continues at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 21 and at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, June 24-27 (discount pricing on Wednesday and Thursday, June 24 and 25). There will also be a special midnight performance on Friday June 26. Tickets range from $17.50-$28.50 and credit card fees apply. Tickets may also available at the door, but many shows are selling out, so call ahead. For tickets, go to www.genesiusdifference.org or call 610-373-9500.
The play is rated “R” for adult language and situations and partial nudity. Genesius Theatre is located at 153 North 10th Street, Reading, 19601. Genesius Theatre is handicap accessible with free parking (limited spaces available) next to the theater. For more information, call the theater at 610-371-8151.
From front to back - Cal Anthony as Mark, Kristin Pagliei as Mimi (next to wall), Maggie Shevlinas Maureen (on floor), Drewn Boardma